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Each quarter, our peer reviewed journal publishes up to six research- and practice-based articles on Australian youth. Find out more.

YSA September cover (thumbnail)

YSA September cover

September 2009 edition
Feature articles

School students and part-time work: Workplace problems and challenges

by Erica Smith & Wendy Patton

Youth Studies Australia, v.28, n.3, 2009, pp.21-31.

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The literature has identified some potential problems and challenges associated with teenage part-time workers and the nature of the workplaces that employ them. However a large national project on student-working found few problems in the two companies researched because these companies had policies in place that addressed the potential problems. Some suggestions are made about how problems and challenges could be avoided in a wider range of adolescent workplaces.

In Australia, the majority of young people work while they are still at school. Student-working is now recognised as an established fact rather than an aberrant phenomenon, as has tended to be the case until fairly recently. Many employers, particularly in the retail and fast food industries, rely on students to run their businesses. Some school students need to work to help support their families and most want to work for discretionary spending, and school systems now accept that their students have part-time jobs.

However, some people are still of the view that the jobs that school students do are menial, that students are often exploited and that they are at risk of injury. Of course, individual problems do exist, as in adult work, but many young people enjoy their jobs and gain a lot from them. The weight of recent research evidence shows that the majority of Australian school students are happy in their part-time jobs (e.g. Smith & Green 2001; NSW Commission for Children and Young People 2005). To characterise young people as victims of exploitation by employers (Think: Insight & Advice 2007) and their work as boring and meaningless could be seen as disrespectful to young people and the work that they do; perhaps even more importantly it serves to prevent proper examination of any serious problems that do exist, because specific problems can become subsumed within a vague and general disapproval of students’ jobs.

This paper therefore sets out to examine the actual problems and challenges in school student-working. This is approached by identifying the characteristics of young part-time workers, and the workplaces in which they work, that are associated with potential difficulties and challenges, and then drawing on data to illustrate the actual incidence of such problems and challenges. The paper uses data from an Australian Research Council research project on student-working careers to answer these questions. The data used in the paper were collected in 2006 and 2007.

Background and literature review

It is difficult to ascertain the exact percentage of young people who work while still at school, partly because they may move in and out of work at different times (for example, withdrawing from the workforce during the last few months of Year 12 to focus on studying) and because “working” may mean different things to different researchers. For example, babysitting and newspaper delivery or working in the family shop or cafe may or may not be counted as work. However, most writers agree that around half to three-quarters of school students over the age of 15 work formally. For example, estimates of the extent of student working include 66% of Year 10 to 12 students (Smith & Green 2001), with a lower rate for Year 10 students than Year 11 and 12 students, and 56% of Year 7 to 10 students (NSW Commission for Children and Young People 2005). School students are generally reported to work an average of nine or 10 hours a week during term-time (Smith & Green 2001; Robinson 1999) and to begin their formal working life between the ages of 13 and 15.

As the NSW Commission for Children and Young People (2005) points out, there are two major schools of thought in relation to school student-working. The first sees part-time jobs as beneficial, while the second sees them as problematic. The main arguments for student-working are that a great deal of learning occurs through work, that part-time jobs develop self-efficacy in lower-achieving students, and that career paths exist into management roles (Smith & Green 2001). The main problem areas are seen to be interference with studies and impact on other areas of life such as sport or family time and the fact that the work itself may be regarded as “menial and exploitative” (NSW Commission for Children & Young People 2005, p.1).

Exploitation can be associated with a lack of understanding of rights at work and with safety risks. Some research into these issues (e.g. Tannock 2001 in North America, and Mayhew & Quinlan 2002 in Australia) relates to young workers in retail and fast food rather than school students only, but still has applicability to this paper. Mayhew & Quinlan found that young workers’ injuries in the fast food industry were no higher than those of full-time workers, and awareness of safety issues was high. They attributed this to the Fordist work organisation that is a feature of this industry. They found, however, a limited understanding of worker rights, and, in addition, Tannock (2001) identified a lack of union responsiveness to the needs of young workers. Tannock pointed out that the industries in which student workers are employed tend to be regarded more generally as low skilled and second rate. It is assumed that few people would want long-term careers in such work (Leidner 1993). Considerable variations in skill requirements and job interest among typical student jobs have, however, been noted (Bailey & Bernhardt 1997).

Almost two-thirds of school student workers work in retail or fast food (Smith & Green 2001). The retail and hospitality industries form the largest sector of Australia’s economy. The retail industry faces a number of unique challenges which, together with the low productivity and profits on turnover generated in comparison to other industry areas (Maglen, Hopkins & Burke 2001), explain the industry’s need to minimise labour costs, and hence, to some extent, their need for student worker labour. Employers have, however, cited a number of additional reasons why they like to employ young students (Smith & Comyn 2003), including the opportunity to recruit good-quality permanent staff, including future managers (e.g. Canny 2002). At the time of the research reported in this paper, there were major labour shortages in these industries, as in most of the Australian economy, with national unemployment rates varying between 4% and 4.5% (Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2007).

Further literature relating to each of the themes identified in the analysis is discussed in conjunction with these themes in the ‘Findings’ section of the paper.

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