Statistics show that high school workforce participation in San Diego is decreasing, students share their perspectives on working while in school.
By MARK ALLEN CU
Some remember a time when teenagers filled malls across San Diego—and more often than not, they were the workers flipping patties and organizing clothes. In fact, most Americans aged 16-19 participated in the labor force in 2000, with retail jobs being the most common pastime for students after school and during summers.
However, just two decades later, statistics show that only about 1 in 3 students in San Diego are a part of the workforce, a number that has been steadily declining since 2000. When analyzing this decrease in workers, it is important to note that San Diego teenagers are not necessarily seeing higher unemployment rates (those seeking work but not finding it), but rather, a smaller percentage of students looking for a job in general. Essentially, high school students in San Diego are becoming more hesitant to fill out job applications as time goes on.
Mater Dei Catholic student Catalina, 17, spent much of her senior year working in a fast-food chain near her school. “It just hit me that I’m going to college and I need money to pay for tuition and applications — it’s really expensive,” she shared. For many students like Catalina, increasing college expenses create a necessity to earn money before graduating. However, the inflated cost of tuition is also causing many high school students to leave their jobs or choose not to have one. As Catalina explained, “the costs of [my college], are so expensive. The amount of money I saved wouldn’t make much of an impact.”
Ironically, the reason some high school students are no longer interested in having a job is that they cannot afford it — not in terms of money, but rather time. Dr. Daniel Enemark, Senior Economist for the San Diego Workforce Partnership, discussed this economic choice that many teenagers make while in school.
“In a world where high school becomes a race to get into a college, it becomes an arena to try to prove yourself to get into an elite college.” As he stated, school and extracurriculars have become a full-time job for many students as the competition for college acceptances and by extension, high-salary white-collar work, has increased.
Additionally, with overwhelming tuition fees in recent decades, the money earned from a part-time job rarely has any impact on alleviating the cost of college. As Dr. Enemark put it, “The value of a part-time job is lower because the opportunity cost of boosting your resume is higher, meaning that time spent working retail could instead be used to study and get better grades — things that would increase your chances of getting into good universities.” Here, one can see that any economically rational teenager would choose other resume-building activities over joining the workforce.
However, this freedom to focus on school rather than getting a job is not evenly distributed across class. Students that come from higher-income families do not have to consider work as the student already has their financial needs accounted for. On the other side, high school students that come from lower-income families do have to consider the prospect of joining the workforce to support their households. This is what makes San Diego’s lack of high school workers unique; our county’s high median household income demonstrates this ability that many students have to not worry about earning money for their families. San Diego families are more likely to have the economic resources and comfortability to have their kids concentrate on their academics and extracurriculars.
The underlying concerns of teenagers not having the experience of working entry-level part-time jobs lies in the missed opportunities to learn many crucial life skills while in high school.
High Tech High student Madilyn, 17, cites that her three jobs have given her “well-rounded skills and qualities and mature outlooks on life” that have made her better prepared for college life. Olympian High School student April, 18, talked about how the food industry gave her “tough skin” and how she learned to “interact with all sorts of different people and perspectives from both customers and coworkers.” As the disparity between working and non-working San Diego students increase, many teenagers in our county lose the learning opportunities that a job provides.
— Mark Allen Cu is a freelance journalist and a student at Stanford University.