The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


May 1, 2012

Balancing Act: Teens the latest generation to hit workplace

Overwhelmed with school exams, Tiffany Fernandez picked up her cellphone and did what any teen might do to let her boss know she can’t make it to work — she sent a text message.

Fernandez, 17, has held her job for two years as an assistant in Miami clothing designer Alexis Barbara’s office and brings her generation’s mind-set to the workplace. Tiffany considers the tiny touch screen in her hand, her cellphone, crucial to business communication. She will use it to discuss scheduling with her supervisor, receive receipts from vendors and negotiate a pickup time with her mom.

“In business, you have to be on top of everything,” she says.

Take Your Child to Work Day has come and gone, but some teens are going beyond a daylong glimpse into the working world. Members of the iGeneration, born after 1990, are landing their first jobs, and bringing their obsession with online connectivity and multitasking into the workplace.

There probably isn’t a company in America that isn’t wrestling with managing different generations. Baby boomers, Gen X, millennials: They all seem to want something different. Now comes the iGeneration, also known as Generation Z, with its own distinct way of walking, talking and working. Generational expert Cam Marston predicts a need to manage expectations on both sides.

“They will have to get used to email and, God forbid, picking up the phone and calling,” said Marston of Generational Insights. “But at the same time, employers will have to get used to the fact that they may choose to text-message even if they’re standing next to you.”

Most of the teens I spoke with who have jobs know they are fortunate. Many of their peers want part-time or hourly work but are being turned away. The increase in minimum wage and higher unemployment among adults has caused experienced workers to claim entry-level positions, leaving fewer jobs open for teens. Indeed, about 4.2 million 16- to 19-year-olds hold jobs today, compared with 5.8 million five years ago. The majority of those jobs remain part-time positions.

It is that realization that has affected how teens approach work. Even so, they want the workplace to accommodate them — their schedules, opinions and style of interaction — just as their technology does. Yet most are open to the lessons the business world may offer.

“I learned that when they give me something to do I have to make sure it’s completely right or someone will attack you for it,” Fernandez said. “I hate being reprimanded. When I do something, I’ve learned to double-check it, that a mistake is not a joke. It has matured me a lot.”

Lee Orlinsky, 17, took a part-time job at Einstein Bros. Bagels in Plantation, Fla., about a year ago, and says he, too, has learned from real-world business experience. “It’s very different to go from being the customer to helping the customer,” Orlinsky said. He has also discovered that having hundreds of Facebook friends doesn’t teach you interpersonal skills and sometimes you have to interact with co-workers and customers “whether you like them or not.”

Yet Orlinsky realizes he brings something to the workplace even the millennial generation doesn’t always offer: “I can relate to the teens that come in.”

Even more, Orlinsky has helped move supervisors toward the style of communication the iGeneration expects. Much like Fernandez, he will send his supervisor a text message to learn his work schedule for the week or express a conflict or interest in extra hours.

“It’s easier for her. She doesn’t have to stop what she’s doing to talk to me,” he said. “She can text me back on her own time.”

Like the generations before them, teens are grappling with balancing work and their personal lives. Kalif Fletcher, 17, plays basketball for Piper High in Sunrise, Fla., maintains a full-time class schedule, has a girlfriend and works as a sales specialist at Levi’s outlet in Sawgrass Mills mall. Fletcher said school is his priority, but he feels more independent and more mature since he started earning a paycheck a year ago.

“I learned that if you work hard, you stand out,” he said. With dreams of being a chemist, Fletcher also learned he wants fulfillment from work, which was not necessarily a priority for prior generations like the boomers. “Whatever job I have, I’ve got to be happy.”

Experts say because members of the iGeneration are so naturally tech-savvy, they will do things bigger, better and at a younger age than previous generations.

Sure, there will be workplace slackers. And then there will be entrepreneurs like Ryan Breslow. At 17, he already has worked for three years at a Publix grocery store, has secured two paid internships at high-tech marketing firms and has founded three online businesses. Breslow is determined to be his own boss. In the fall, he is headed to Stanford University, where he has his sights set on an eventual start-up as promising as Google or Facebook. “I see value in working for others,” he said. “But I see myself eventually in a job with limitations set only by myself.”

Regardless of their ultimate goals, most working teens realize the advantage of getting work experience as early as possible. Experts are predicting a particularly challenging transition for this generation. They have seen their parents out of work and will enter workplaces where loyalty is dead. Even worse, they have suffered from education cuts that affect their job preparation.

“Students simply do not possess much information or knowledge about the workplace,” said Robin McCarthy, executive director of Women At Work, which held a teen job fair last month. McCarthy finds most teens do not know how to begin resumes or answer all the questions on a job application. She hopes more organizations will step in to help them. “I think there’s recognition that if you have work experience, you will be in a better position than your peers who don’t.”


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