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How Many Hours Should a Teenager Work During the School Year?

I have a fifteen-year-old son, and I have told him that by this time next year he will have a part-time job. The news continuously highlights stories of students graduating from college with mountains of debt that take decades to pay off. Anything we can do to mitigate the problem is a bonus in our book, so his mother and I are big proponents of our teen punching a time clock.

Additionally, there are other benefits to having a job.

Colleges like it when they see on a student’s resume that he has had a job in high school. It shows that the teen has initiative and wants to take on responsibilities.

Employment also gives students a feeling of independence and pride and can teach valuable life skills, such as how to get along with difficult personalities or time management.

Balancing a Job with High School

Still, figuring out how my son can reap the rewards of having a job without suffering setbacks in other areas of his life is the key.

I always thought that a minor couldn’t legally work until he turned 16, but that isn’t the case in most states. Where we live in the state of Washington, teens can begin working as young as 14, but there are many stipulations. For example, a 14- or 15-year old can only work (on school days) three hours a day, between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., but on weekends they can work a standard eight-hour day. Sixteen- and 17-year old minors can work four hours a day, Monday through Friday, but must be finished by 10 p.m., and midnight on the weekends. (There is information on the amount of time minors may work and the types of jobs that are off limits for teens under 18 on each state’s Department of Labor website.)

I’ve done the math—if he works eight hours a week at $11 an hour (minimum wage where we live) for 52 weeks—that would equal $4,576. In just one year, he could almost earn enough to pay for two semesters of community college.

So, let’s say your teen—driving age of course—goes out and lands a gig at the local grocery store as a bagger. He’s attending high school, participating in the marching band, and playing on the basketball team. Additionally, he has roughly an hour or two of homework every night.

So, How Many Hours Should a Teenager Work?

High school students are under more pressure than ever before, and we don’t want to overwhelm him. Research has consistently shown that working over the standard 20 hours a week limit negatively affects teens in a variety of ways, such as school performance, lack of sleep/impaired driving, and academic/behavioral problems. In 2011, researchers from the University of Washington, the University of Virginia, and Temple University issued a report finding that working more than 20 hours a week during the school year results in an increased likelihood of lower grades and other academic issues, mainly because of sleep deprivation. Additionally, a study published in the Sociology of Education in the same year cited that working more than 20 hours each week leads to a higher dropout rate.

High school students who worked at a moderate level (less than 20 hours per week) fared no differently regarding academic performance or problem behavior than their peers who did not have a job.

The trick is finding the right balance, and I believe it comes down to what will work for your family. Look at things like how many hours per week your teen already has scheduled with other activities, course load, and any other responsibilities–and then piggy-back on that.

Based on everything I’ve read, a reasonable number of work hours during the school year for my son would be around 10, with the majority of those coming on the weekends. Additionally, his job should have supervision by an adult, and he should receive the proper training to ensure his safety.

I am excited to see how my son will handle his first job. It will give him a little spending money, the opportunity to tuck some aside for college, and most importantly, still have time to be a teen.

Bryan Johnston is a freelance writer, author of several books, and the Creative Director for a creative agency in Seattle, Washington. He is married, has two teens, and one large goldendoodle. He loves baseball and movies and thinks A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is the most enjoyable book he’s ever read.

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