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Hire a teenager, change a life

As I walk through the valley of teen unemployment with my 16-year-old son, I thought I’d offer readers an update on a young man I wrote about in a past column.

In October 2011, I reported being curled up in an armchair at my local coffee shop when a teenage boy took a seat at the table next to me and commenced one of the worst job interviews I had ever witnessed.

Dressed in sagging jeans manufactured with worn spots and wrinkles, an oversized hoodie and skateboarding shoes, this kid slumped in his seat and answered the shop manager’s questions with mumbled, incomplete sentences.

He stared at his hands and chewed gum, hadn’t filled out the application correctly and had not brought along any legal form of identification.

At the time, I mentioned that he was an average-looking kid scratching for his first job during the worst employment environment for young adults in at least half a century.

“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” I wrote, “just 48.8 percent of people 16 to 24 [in the labor force] were employed in July, the typical peak month for youth employment, the lowest rate on record since 1948, when the bureau started keeping track.”

What happened after that column was published surprised me.

A few weeks later, my husband and I saw that the unimpressive young man had actually gotten hired. I had serious doubts about his ability to do a job that required friendly banter with hurried customers giving sometimes-complex food orders.

As patrons of this particular neighborhood coffee spot since practically the day it opened, we’d seen ‘em come and go. It takes a special kind of person to thrive in a position that serves demanding customers before they’ve had their first hit of caffeine.

The newbies — almost always teens — usually start off rough: They jam the baseball caps that come standard with their uniform down over their eyes and neglect to look at customers as they struggle to learn the cash register. They don’t speak loudly enough, they forget to say “hello,” or “thank you,” or “I’m sorry” when they get your order wrong.

Some come off as surly under pressure, and others are super sweet but painfully slow. Many simply don’t make it too long before they are asked to find work they are better suited for. Others mature beautifully.

Almost four years later, Sergio is a pleasure to behold.

No longer a shy, mumbling coffee clerk, the kid I gave little odds of succeeding in 2011 is now the master of his scone-bagel-coffee domain.

Under the firm hand of a taskmaster manager who can correct his employees in a respectful way, Sergio knows his customers by face, often knows their entire order by heart and is pleasant and quick.

On a recent Sunday morning, he greeted me as a proud farmer would humbly brag about his harvest. “Yep, it sure was cold out at 4 this morning,” he said as he boasted of his unlocking the cafe and helping the baker prep for opening time.

These amazing transformations are a matter of course in coffee shops, fast-food joints and other places where teens can be hired for demanding work that pays far more in life and professional experience than in actual wages.

God bless the managers and supervisors who can see past the rough edges of a new entrant into the job market and put in the effort to hammer out a hard worker who enjoys his job and his customers.

But the February 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report shows teen unemployment (16- to 19-year-olds) at 17.1 percent, more than three times that of all nonfarm payroll employment, which is a more-bearable 5.5 percent.

A January Drexel University report on teen unemployment noted that teens’ ability to land jobs is closely linked to their household income, meaning that those from the neediest households are the least likely to be able to find work.

In our still-recovering economy, the reality that you need work experience to get a job hits hardest for youngsters looking for their first jobs.

If you are a parent or a mentor, do whatever you can to help the young people in your life land a job. Offer coaching, advice and recommendations. Better yet, if you’re in a position to, hire one.

Your helping hand promises to change teens’ lives for the better.

Esther J. Cepeda (estherjcepeda@washpost.com) is a columnist for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

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