Summer Job Isn’t What It Used to Be

From NYT “OpTalk” Blog, September 9, 2014 by Anna Altman:

Once upon a time, hard-working high school students who took a summer job or worked part-time during the school year got an edge over their unemployed peers. Not only did they earn some pocket money — which many students saved for college — but they were also likely to see increased earning potential long after they graduated.

Not only that, teenagers would prove their work ethic, make professional connections, increase their self-confidence and become more likely to graduate from high school in the first place.

But according to a recent article by Jessica Leber in Fast Company magazine, a summer paycheck no longer comes with many of these advantages. Ms. Leber cites a study published last month by Charles L. Baum and Christopher J. Ruhm for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study looked at two groups, one of high school students in 1979 and another of students in 1997. It shows that, today, high school seniors who also work 20 hours a week are less likely to have increased earning potential later on than they might have been in 1979.

In concrete terms, the 1979 group was likely to see an 8.3 percent increase in wage-earning capacity, compared with a 4.4 percent increase for the 1997 cohort.

Furthermore, the earlier group was more likely to move into better-paying fields. “Senior year employment was predicted to decrease the probability of subsequently working in the relatively low-paid service sector for the 1979 cohort but to increase it for the 1997 cohort,” Mr. Baum and Mr. Ruhm write. For the latter group, the increase in the likelihood of low-paid service work offset “a portion of the benefit of the early work that otherwise would have occurred.”

Overall, Mr. Baum and Mr. Ruhm’s study concludes that working as a student isn’t what it once was: “Work experience during the high school senior year continues to predict positive effects on labor market outcomes 5-11 years after the expected date of high school graduation, but these beneficial consequences have attenuated fairly dramatically over time.”

That students who work during high school may be at a disadvantage for later earnings seems to confirm the degree to which the economy is proceeding on two tracks: one for low-wage earners, and another for students who are in a financial position to pursue internships or other opportunities that lead to connections.