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Behavioral Traits are Biggest Barrier to Teen Employment, New Study Reveals

April 11, 2013

Teen Employment
A new study reveals some practical solutions to the challenge of declining teen employment

As the share of employed teens across the nation has plummeted over the last decade, a new study from Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy and the Commonwealth Corporation reveals some practical solutions to the challenge of declining teen employment.

According to the study, entitled “Signaling Success: Boosting Teen Employment Prospects,” employers of entry‐level workers such as teens take recruitment and hiring very seriously and engage in a variety of activities to find prospective workers they believe will contribute to output and profitability of their organizations. High schools, youth-serving organizations, businesses, parents and government entities can help to train and coach teens in these skills and behaviors needed to successfully find and retain employment.

The study reinforces the importance of teen employment, claiming that teens learn key behaviors by working, and these behaviors are a critical aspect of the hiring criteria at every level of employment. Teen employment predicts future employment. Teens who work are more likely to be employed as adults than teens who don’t work. The skills and behaviors that teens acquire through early work experience are essential to jobs at all levels, throughout their careers.

“We need to think of early work experience as more than just a way to put a few extra dollars into teens’ pockets,” said Dr. Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy. “While working certainly has the ability to bolster the consumption of teens and their families, working at an early age generates a set of additional and longer lasting benefits that are manifest in improved lifetime employment and earnings as well as improved educational outcomes.”

About the Study
In the spring of 2012, Commonwealth Corporation and the Drexel University Center for Labor Markets and Policy launched a study to improve understanding about the underlying causes of the dramatic decline in teen employment rates. The study sought to identify employer perceptions of teens in the workplace and to develop pragmatic strategies to reverse the 12‐year decline in teen employment.

In the spring and summer of 2012, a survey, interviews and focus groups with nearly 200 businesses were conducted. The research questions in this effort focused on five areas: 1) perceptions of teens’ hard skills (reading, writing, math, technology); 2) perceptions of teens’ work behaviors; 3) the effect of teen employment laws on hiring decisions; 4) factors affecting hiring decisions; and 5) hiring preferences. The study targeted businesses in sectors that have historically hired teens: fast food, grocery stores, retail stores, community banks, long term care and educational organizations. Most of the businesses that were engaged in this study were located in Massachusetts, as well as from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington, Indiana, Rhode Island, Maine, California, Florida, Wisconsin and New York. In addition to hearing from employers, the study also included two focus groups of approximately 30 teens.

Major Findings
This study provides details about what was 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 far superior to that 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 online 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 for Labor Markets and Policy also conducted analysis of the United States Department of Labor’s O*NET database to examine whether or not findings, from surveys, interviews and focus groups, 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 was 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 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.

Applications for Programs and Practice

A major purpose of this study was to understand why the job market fortunes of teens have declined and to attempt to develop a set of remedies that have the potential for improving the ability of teens – both in school and out of school – to find unsubsidized private-sector jobs that help improve their long-term employment and earnings.

The study revealed that many of the barriers to hiring teens can be addressed through training, coaching and support that develop job seeking and retention skills of teens and address the perceived risk of hiring teens on the part of employers. In addition, organizations and institutions that serve teens, including high schools, can play a role in preparing and supporting teens and vouching for them with businesses in their local labor market. While education and cognitive skills have been widely studied and found to be vital to labor market success, this study identifies specific behavioral and non-cognitive traits valued by employers that are vital to the ability of teens to find jobs and keep them.

Read the full research brief here.

About the Commonwealth Corporation
Commonwealth Corporation strengthens the skills of Massachusetts youth and adults by investing in innovative partnerships with industry, education and workforce organizations. We seek to meet the immediate and emerging needs of businesses and workers so they can thrive in our dynamic economy. Commonwealth Corporation is a Massachusetts quasi‐public corporation within the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. For more information about Commonwealth Corporation, visit

About the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University
The Center for Labor Markets and Policy, Drexel University (CLMP) conducts applied research and provides education and technical assistance on human resource development issues and their connections to the labor market. CLMP staff work with national, state and local  governments,  workforce development  organizations, the  business  community,  organized  labor, the nonprofit community and others engaged in building the nation’s human resource development system. For more information about CLMP, visit