As I entered the job site, I could hear my 16-year-old son before I could see him. The sounds of a radio blaring in an empty room upstairs, combined with the rhythmic thump of a hammer, led me to where he was demolishing a built-in cabinet. He was sweaty, his face covered in dirt and drywall dust.
And he looked exhausted.
For a brief moment, I felt guilty. On a hot summer day, my son was covered in dirt and grime instead of lounging by the pool with his buddies. And, though we have a family vacation planned for later in the summer, he wasn’t spending his summer vacation days backpacking through South America or participating in a camp program centered on an activity he loves.
Rather, he gets up before dawn to work a manual labor job at an hourly rate for a local contractor. He carries tools and a water jug with him and he eats a turkey sandwich on his lunch break. He’s learning how to take orders from a job foreman and how to use power tools.
He’s also learning just how strong his long, lanky body is, because pulling 30-year-old carpeting out of a house is no easy task.
I have moments where I remember my own blissful summer days spent in front of The Price Is Right and Days of Our Lives. I wonder if he’s missing out, but I remind myself that having a job as a teen is just as important as attending film camp or carousing with friends on a Saturday night.
After his first day on the job, our son came home and announced that he spent four hours chipping heavily-glued tiles out of a basement.
“I wasn’t going to give up until those things came off the ground,” he told us.
The physical and backbreaking work of manual labor is teaching him just as much, if not more, than the mental challenge of a high school AP class.
It turns out, too, that having a regular job during the summer, one where a teen flips burgers or punches a time clock in a warehouse, might be just as attractive to a college admissions officer as a trip to volunteer for missionary work in another country, according to a recent article published in Quartz.
Our son is gaining other benefits from working, too.
On a particularly grueling workday, he came home and told us that he didn’t complete the work he was assigned because a coworker wasn’t participating in an efficient manner. And, when the foreman came to inspect the job, both my son and the coworker were chastised for poor time management. Learning to work with people with different personalities and work ethics has been an eye-opening—and valuable—experience for our son.
During the school year, he’s the smart kid, the one who juggles AP classes, after school activities, and homework. On the job site, he’s just one of the guys. He’s expected to pull the same weight as the other laborers, and no one cares what his SAT scores are or how well he did on his AP exams. This job has been humbling for him, and the opportunity to see life through a different lens will serve him well long into adulthood.
And recently, when the clutch on his car needed to be replaced, we watched as he processed how much the repair would cost. After he listened to the mechanic outline the details of the repair, our son pulled out his phone and started to text. When I asked who he was texting, he looked at us with an impish grin. “My boss,” he said. “Looks like I’m going to need some extra hours in the next few weeks to pay for this repair.”
My boy is growing up. And he has the life lessons to prove it.