04/10/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 06/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Do Teens Need to Network to Get a First Job?


My son couldn't wait to turn 16 because it meant he could finally get a job. On his birthday, last November, he started applying to companies. He has a strong work ethic; it must come from being raised by an entrepreneurial mother. He has seen me work hard, make my own luck and persevere in the face of adversity. I always taught him to never give up, to keep on trying and to be positive.

He has a pet-sitting business which he started when he was eight. He has been a volunteer coach for his swim team. He is a good kid, well groomed and well mannered. He's always on time, is very reliable and wants to work. What more could you ask for?

Apparently, you need more than that. My son has applied to McDonalds three times, Tim Hortons twice, KFC, Cineplex twice, No Frills, Loblaws, golf courses (to do anything), coffee shops, Canadian Tire, FreshCo, Pizza Pizza, Wonderland, and City of Toronto. He got an interview at Wonderland, took the math proficiency test and scored high marks. He was streamed into an interview for a job hawking games. Right there and then, he was told to audition. This was his first interview and I'm not sure he knew what a game hawker did. He flunked that. Given that he did well in the math test, he expected he would be interviewed for a job as a cashier or in one of the gift shops. But he was told better luck next year.

In my quest to understand this odd situation, I began asking young people how they got their jobs. At Cineplex, the young ticket seller told me that he applied online. He was 16. At my local FreshCo, he handed his resume to the manager. He never got a call but there have since been new teens working there. The local McDonalds has had significant staff turnover. My son applied last year during the McDonalds national day of hiring. After his interview at the local store, he received a special code inviting him to apply online. That opportunity vanished into the ether along with the others. He never heard back from them, although he applied online twice after that.

So what's going on here? What I keep hearing from people is that my son is lacking the most essential of life skills -- the powerful network. I have always believed in letting kids make it on their own. I vowed I would never be a helicopter parent, hovering over my precious offspring's every move and shielding him from life's tough lessons. I sent him out to the work world to learn its workings and mature from that process. What better lesson, I thought, than to learn what a jungle it is out there. Little did I realize that it wasn't a jungle but had turned into a glorified networking event. Time and again, I've been told that you have to know someone, that you have to have connections. Where does a 16-year-old get connections other than have parents make the connections for you? What happened to the philosophy of independence and striking out on your own? My son wants me to level the playing field for him and use my contacts. I can't say that I blame him for making that request.

My son is feeling defeated by the job market and by how unresponsive these organizations are. I admit that I'm feeling defeated as well. I also worry about his future and the future of others like him. When I was his age, I simply walked into a few stores and asked for a job. I usually got one. My parents weren't involved and I certainly didn't need to be connected. Should my message to my son be to place less emphasis on getting good grades and doing good community work and more on knowing good people -- the ones who are connected? Is my son now to spend his teen years learning the fine art of networking so he can gain advantage over others?

We hear endless pronouncements from governments and the private sector about supporting youth, advising them to get out there and learn the needed skills for the future economy. What is the point of that if you then throw a huge barrier to these students when they want to go out there, make a contribution and gain independence? The private sector is always trumpeting their youth initiatives... are these for the select few? It seems that we are creating a culture where those kids who are being coached and helped due to their connections are moving forward. The other kids who are trying to make it on their own, without help, are coming up against endless doors being slammed in their faces. Actually, they aren't being slammed because they aren't even being opened a crack.

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