Teens are missing out on jobs. And your state could be to blame.

·4 min read

As the end of the school year approaches, this summer break won’t be as rewarding as it should be for millions of teenagers. Most states block teens from finding their first job and best path in life.

Fortunately, some states have started to break these barriers, but more should follow suit. Every teenager deserves to discover the lifelong benefits that come with early work.

The idea of the working teenager is as old as America itself, but now they are increasingly rare. Only 36% of those ages 16 to 19 participated in the labor force at the end of 2021, down from almost 60% in the late 1970s.

While the pandemic caused a growing number of teenagers to look for jobs, they face hurdles that often delay their entry into the workforce, or worse, prevent them from trying.

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Work permits create obstacle

According to our research, 35 states require teenagers to get a work permit from school administrators, government bureaucrats or both to get a job. These mandates go well beyond federal child labor laws, which don’t require work permits yet still establish strong health, safety and education restrictions for teenage workers.

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Where federal rules are sensible, state regulations are not, inserting officials into decisions that are better left to teenagers and their families.

Take Michigan. Teenagers in the Great Lakes State must obtain a work permit from their high school to get a job. They must get additional permits each time they change jobs. Permission is required even for summer work and volunteer opportunities.

In neighboring Ohio, teenagers must also pass a physical examination from their doctor before also getting their school’s permission.

While the pandemic caused a growing number of teenagers to look for jobs, they face hurdles that often delay their entry into the workforce, or worse, prevent them from trying.
While the pandemic caused a growing number of teenagers to look for jobs, they face hurdles that often delay their entry into the workforce, or worse, prevent them from trying.

And in Pennsylvania, it’s not just high school students: Teenage high school graduates must get a permit from the district in which they want to work, and teenage college students must ask university officials for permission. Surely if teenagers can go off to college, they can get a job on their own.

The upper Midwest is far from alone. From California to Illinois to New York to Massachusetts, teenage work permits are the law of the land. Broadly speaking, teenagers must get the approval of a designated officer – whether at their high school or from their state’s department of labor – who often reviews everything from personal health records to proposed working hours to an employer’s record.

Loss of work has lasting costs

Yet school administrators and government bureaucrats shouldn’t be involved in the first place. They draw out the process and give teenagers one more reason to avoid the work that will enrich their lives.

When states make it more difficult for teenagers to get jobs, they’re doing lasting damage. Research shows that teenagers who work for even a single year have incomes that are 14% to 16% higher in their 20s, and working for several years multiplies the benefits.

Teenage work also leads to decreased drug use and increased graduation rates. And then there are the intangible benefits that accompany work. Keeping a schedule, getting along with co-workers, learning personal strengths and weaknesses – the sooner teenagers learn these skills, the better.

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Fortunately, some states have cleared the path for enterprising teenagers. The 15 states that don’t require teenage work permits are largely clustered in the South and Mountain West, ranging from Florida and Texas to Wyoming and Montana.

The list includes the two states with the highest teenage labor force participation rates: Utah and Kansas, both of which still have more than half of teenagers in the workforce. Indiana dropped its work permit requirement in 2020, the latest to do so, and Missouri and Georgia are considering this reform.

Alli Fick
Alli Fick
Haley Holik
Haley Holik

Businesses offer incentives for teens

State policymakers should act swiftly. Businesses desperate for workers are raising wages and offering benefits tailored to job-seeking teenagers – everything from free college prep courses to paid time for homework.

A growing number of teenagers have responded to these incentives, yet the barrier of work permits is holding back many more. By ending work permits, states will encourage today’s teenagers to become tomorrow’s workers, which they and America needed yesterday.

Alli Fick is research director and Haley Holik is senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Teens may be shut out of summer jobs because of misguided state rules