For millions of American teens, a rite of passage used to be a summer job flipping burgers, caddying or working at the mall. My first job was delivering newspapers and taking tickets at a movie theater. But fewer teens and college students work today, leaving them unprepared for jobs upon graduation.
Today’s colleges and universities need to do a much better job of incorporating professional work experience into their academic programs to prepare meaningfully graduates for their own careers, while also meeting the nation’s constantly evolving workforce needs.
The number of teens with a job while in school has dropped from 40 percent in 1991 to a record low of less than 20 percent today. By 2024, teenage workers will account for just 26 percent of the workforce, a reduction of almost half since 1948.
Some may argue today’s younger generation is lazy and spends too much time texting or playing video games. Others say teens — especially in the upper-middle-class — are focused on bolstering their resumes with exotic travel adventures and service projects, or honing athletic skills to help them get into top-tier universities.
But many teens are also spending more time in the classroom, taking summer classes — both in high school and college. The percentage of high-school graduates enrolled in college has grown by 25 percent, which is roughly equal to the decline in the teenage labor force. Meanwhile, the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds enrolled in summer school over the last 20 years has tripled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At the same time, teens looking for work face competition for entry-level jobs from older workers, underemployed recent college grads and foreign-born workers, according to the BLS. Increases in the minimum wage and cuts in federally funded summer job programs have likewise curtailed job opportunities for teens.
While the strengthening economy may increase job opportunities for teens this summer, the long-term trend of fewer teens working remains. The upshot is many graduate from college with no work experience.
This is problematic for several reasons.
College graduates with no work experience lack basic skills like getting to work on time, dressing appropriately and interacting with customers, co-workers and their managers.
A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found college students believe they are ready for a job, but employers disagree. The biggest divide was centered on a student’s professionalism and work ethic. Nearly 90 percent of seniors said they were competent in these areas, while only 43 percent of employers agreed.
But students are not going back to the good old days. So, it is up colleges and universities to do more to prepare students for today’s workforce.
At Drexel University, we believe our cooperative education model is perfectly suited for the times because it blends real-world work experience with state-of-the-art classroom instruction. Other universities clinging to old forms of traditional pedagogy would be wise to adapt with the times.
Co-op differs significantly from internships. Our students attend classes full time their freshman year. Then, depending on their major, they alternate six-month periods of full-time study with full-time employment at university-approved employers.
Many, but not all, co-ops are paid. Students can complete up to three co-ops by the time they graduate and earn a median of $18,000 for each six-month co-op, which helps to offset the cost of tuition.
Unlike many internships where students do general tasks, co-op students complete real assignments and execute their responsibilities at major companies. These students also receive formal job evaluations and bring their work experiences back to the classroom, helping to enrich discussions with their professors and classmates.
Students on co-op gain the skills employers want, including critical thinking, team-based problem solving and public communications. They learn how to deal with difficult clients, meet deadlines and manage unexpected challenges that inevitably arrive.
The real-world work experience also gives students a chance to test-drive a career and develop a professional network of potential employers and references. Approximately 90 percent of Drexel’s co-op employers say they would hire students for a full-time position. In fact, nearly 50 percent of students receive job offers from a former co-op employer by the time they graduate.
Many of the job offers also pay better. The average salary of a Drexel alum one year after graduation is $56,620, which is 14.3 percent higher than the national average. Other universities where co-op is the cornerstone — such as Northeastern, the Rochester Institute of Technology and Georgia Tech — also report strong starting salaries.
Students on co-op gain valuable experience and develop a work ethic that employers say is lacking in many college graduates. While traditional summer jobs may be a thing of the past, there is a way for students to gain the experience they need to compete in today’s rapidly changing workforce.