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Signaling Success: Boosting Teen Employment Prospects

In 2012, Commonwealth Corporation commissioned research that included a survey, interviews and focus groups with more than 200 businesses, seeking to understand and document the reasons behind declining levels of youth employment. Our work focused on five topics regarding hiring and performance of teen-aged workers: employer perceptions of hard skills (reading, writing, math, and technology), perceptions of work behaviors, the effect of teen employment laws on hiring decisions, factors affecting hiring decisions and hiring preferences. We discovered that many of the barriers to hiring teens can be addressed by offering solid soft-skills training and coaching to young people.

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The full Signaling Success report can be found here.

Major Findings
This paper provides details about what we learned from the surveys, interviews and focus groups. Highlights include:
  • Employers perceive teens’ math, writing and reading skills as comparable to adults who are applying for entry-level jobs in their firms;
  • Employers perceive teens’ technology skills as far superior to the skills of adults who are applying for entry-level jobs in their firms;
  • Employers perceive teens’ work behaviors as inferior to work behaviors of adults or college students, in particular attendance, punctuality and quit rates; these work behaviors are one of the most significant barriers to hiring teens;
  • Teens do not understand the signals that they send to employers during informal interactions such as requesting an application or in formal interactions such as interviews; they are generally not well-coached or prepared for the hiring process;
  • Online applications are a major barrier to hiring for teens, in particular, they are not well prepared or coached about the personality testing that is imbedded in the application process;
  • Employers highly value references for teens from individuals who understand the business and culture of the firm and have a longstanding relationship with the firm; this may include current high-performing employees, relatives, teachers or staff in youth-serving organizations;
  • Employers find it difficult to connect with teachers or guidance counselors in high schools, with the exception of career and technical high schools;
  • Some employers, particularly those in retail, do not hire teens under the age of 18 as a result of employment laws that restrict the scheduling of teens.

Along with the findings from employers, the Drexel Center on Labor Markets and Policy also conducted analysis of the United States Department of Labor’s O*NET database to examine whether or not our findings on the knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors that employers seek in entry-level positions are corroborated in this comprehensive data system. In a companion report, entitled Building Blocks of Labor Market Success, the analysis of O*NET data reinforces what we heard from employers. The findings from this companion report include:
  • The skill requirements for most teen jobs are low and should not present a barrier to employment;
  • Within skills that are required, oral comprehension and active listening ability appear to be the most critical in the occupations in which teens work;
  • In regard to behavioral traits, there is not a wide gap between the requirements of entry-level jobs/lower skilled jobs and higher skilled jobs. The behaviors: dependability, self-control, cooperation and integrity are important for all types of jobs.


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