Having a summer job is a great way for students to gain real-world work experience and earn money.  Sadly, teen labor force participation has been on a steep downward trend for two decades.  In the Washington region, that dip is even more pronounced as high school students struggle to compete with the area’s large number of workers available to commit to the $12-15 per hour restaurant and retail jobs for longer stretches than a student on summer break.  So how is a teenager with a little bit of hustle and a yen for pocket money to get a job?

First Things First: the Work Permit

While the federal government does not set limitations on youth employment, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia all have some sort of permit requirement for high schoolers looking to work.

In DC, youth ages 14 to 18 must complete a work permit application once they have a letter of intent from an employer.  DCPS public high schools, and many private schools, are authorized to issue work permits and maintain the forms in the counseling office.  Maryland teens ages 14 to 17 must apply for a work permit signed by both the parent and the prospective employer.  Virginia minors ages 14 and 15 years old may work after applying for a Youth Employment Certificate.

Where to find a summer job?

Finding a summer job can be as simple as walking into a store or restaurant near home and asking if they’re hiring!  Online job listings are just a Google search away, but here are a few handy resources:

  • Check out the DC Department of Employment Services’ Summer Youth Employment Program. The DC government subsidizes employers who hire teenagers, reimbursing them up to $8 per hour for each worker, a huge incentive that boosts teen opportunities at summer camps, local stores, offices and work sites.  DOES maintains a database of employers and helps match teens to available jobs.
  • Summer camps are the perfect warm weather employer.  The Department of Parks and Recreation posts job listings for its dozens of summer camps and public pools, many of which have the added benefit of offering an opportunity to support underserved communities.  And whether your teenager is a karate master or a STEM enthusiast, the annual list of DC summer camps lists dozens of private camps that provide ample job opportunities.
  • And don’t forget that the country’s biggest employer is right on our doorstep.  Parents are surprised to discover that federal agencies hire high school students.  The Pathways program offers paid opportunities for current students, and can lead to a long-term relationship with an agency, including tuition support and the promise of post-college employment.  Apply early!  Federal government hiring rules usually mean long applications, waiting and persistence, especially if a security clearance is required, but the rewards can be lasting.

But What About Internships?

Facing the high-stakes race for college admissions, students mistakenly assume they need pursue a prestigious internship, volunteer or not.  The truth is that in life we value what we pay for.  The local ice cream shop that pays $12 per hour will make sure their teen employee stays busy scooping flavors and sweeping floors — invaluable lessons in customer service, resilience and teamwork.  

In contrast, a summer internship working for a Senator, crusading NGO or law firm can be hit or miss.  Investing in an employee is hard work, and absent a hit to their bottom line, supervisors have little incentive to extract value from a young intern with limited experience who will only stay a few weeks.  Yes, you may be assigned to a short-staffed team that will have you drafting press statements and researching policy.  However, more often than not, these jobs entail lots of running errands and copies.  If you choose this route, be sure to ask prospective employers for details on intern job duties.     

Remember, colleges love a student with grit.  “A real summer job — whether you’re slinging burgers or working as a lifeguard — is a great chance to sharpen those “soft” skills that no classroom will truly teach — leadership, adaptability, and the willingness to be a team-player,” says Diana Blitz, a college admissions advisor at The College Lady and a former public school counselor.  Furthermore, according to Blitz, admissions pros from the most highly-selective colleges will tell you explicitly that they value the accountability and responsibility that a summer job offers, but see through the “prestige” of an internship.