What your teen needs to know to get an after-school job

All of the dos and don'ts.

This week my 16-year-old quit her after-school job, and her exit did not leave the best impression. A couple of hours before her shift at the local takeaway shop was about to start she rang her boss and told him she wouldn’t be coming in – that afternoon or ever again.

I was surprised because I thought she would’ve talked it over with me first (and given me the opportunity to tell her she needed to give him some notice).

The boss hadn’t been the easiest guy to work for, but that hadn’t entitled her to leave him in the lurch, and now she wouldn’t even be able to get a reference.

When I asked her why she hadn’t thought to give him notice she told me it hadn’t even occurred to her. “Everyone just leaves like that,” she said.

Do they? Having a good work ethic is key to landing and retaining jobs, and while a 16-year-old can’t be expected to be the poster girl for professionalism in the workplace, my daughter did make me wonder if Gen Z-ers have any idea at all (and should we be talking about this with them more?)

Careers advisor Ginny Stainton from Takapuna Grammar School in Auckland helps young people with making decisions about their future every day, including students hoping to transition into the workforce through the school’s Gateway programme, and she’d say most teens do have an idea.

“They can be impulsive and not think of consequences, and there are lots of things going on for them that impinge on their lives.

“We talk to our students about recognising that other people’s time is valuable, and we expect them in all situations to display common courtesy and respect.”

Countdown is New Zealand’s second largest employer with 18,000 team members across 184 stores, and 30 per cent of its staff are aged between 15 and 24.

“How do you find your teenage staff?” I asked Countdown’s HR Manager Talent and Development Pauline Stockill, who is a mother of two teens herself.

“It really varies,” she tells me. “But when we talk about this age group and their work ethic we actually have some fantastic kids in our stores. It’s our 18- to 21-year-olds where we’d see more of the challenges. Our young kids have that excitement because it’s something new and straight away the checkout team is earning $16.67 an hour (Countdown don’t have youth rates), so for them it’s like ‘I’m actually getting paid and I’m getting to meet people and do new things’.”

What Stockill has noticed, though, is that this age group can struggle with talking to customers. “They’re more comfortable behind a screen so we do work with them on the art of conversation. When a customer comes to the till some of them look quite shell-shocked, so we provide training on the job, which includes coaching conversations.”

Countdown is one of several businesses to run its own transition-to-work programme, the SEEDS (Students Entering Employment Developing Skills) Programme. The supermarket chain works in collaboration with secondary schools to help young people transition into the workforce as well as gain NCEA credits. It also runs university graduate programmes and on-the-job training on customer service and product familiarity.

It’s quite a process to get an after-school job at Countdown, and for every role that’s advertised the business will get 150 to 200 applicants. To apply you need to fill out an online form and provide a CV (which seems fairly standard – we searched up the recruitment processes for McDonalds, Glassons, Wendy’s, Pak ‘n Save and BP and they all kick off with an online application). From there you would be given a phone interview and then an in-person interview with the store manager.

“We’re a professional business; we want to take care of the customer and we want to make sure we have the right team to represent the brand,” Stockill explains.

Punctuality, friendliness, being well presented, and showing initiative and responsibility as well as care for the customer are the work ethics that Countdown, and likely every other employer, want to see. Oh, and giving your employer at least one week’s notice when you intend to leave – I’m adding this part in for the benefit of my daughter.

So how do you stand out from the crowd or even get to demonstrate your worth when there are so many applicants – and the initial part of the application process is online? Stockill encourages students to share as much as they can about themselves in their application form and articulate what they’re passionate about, what they’ve achieved and how that makes them feel.

“We’re not looking for technical skills,” Stockill says. “We don’t mind that there’s not a great deal to say on their CV. We don’t even look at references because people will say certain things if they want to give someone a good reference.

“What we look for are attributes – what they would bring to the business in terms of friendliness and being able to work in a team.

“Our customers are our number one priority and we want to connect with them, so if a candidate has the ability to connect with us by sharing great stories about what they’re passionate about and how they’d provide great service, then that’s what makes the difference between them and the next candidate.”

Students’ interests and activities outside school also tell an employer a lot.

“A school captain tells us leadership skills, someone who is involved in sports tells us they are comfortable working in a team, a young person who has had babysitting jobs or a paper round tells us they’re responsible and thinking about their customer.”

To really stand out from the crowd you could approach the store manager in person, and if you make a good first impression your online application could be fast-tracked.

If you make it through to the interview stage, there are some definite do’s and don’ts.

“The most memorable job interview I ever did was with a young girl who was applying for a position as a check-out operator. I asked her, ‘Why do you want to work on the check-out?’ and she said, ‘I love the beep, beep, beep.’”

That girl didn’t get the job. And other things that sound warning bells for employers are turning up late, chewing gum or dressing too casually. (Don’t wear jandals or short shorts – and iron your shirt, Stockill advises.)

Don’t speak in abbreviations: “While we want them to be authentic we don’t want them to be talking in ‘lols’,” Stockill says.

It’s good to ask questions: “A lot of the young kids are really interested in our corporate responsibility, they want to find out what we’re doing because they’re passionate about sustainability and the environment and accountability,” says Stockill.

A better answer than ‘because I love the beep’ would have been “because I love Countdown and my mum shops here… I love making a difference or I love making people feel they really matter; I love spending time with other people, I love socialising.

“You get that feeling that that person really cares about others and when a customer comes in, and they might be an older person who hasn’t seen anyone all week and this is the first person they’re communicating with, they will make a difference to that person’s day. These are the people that really add value.”

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