16-year-old seeks advice: jobless and losing hope

A reader writes:

I’m 16 and I have absolutely no job experience. I fear that along with my lack of experience, the economy being crap right now will entirely prevent me from getting a job. Am I truly hopeless? Another reason it may not be working out for me is that I started applying right after my birthday in May, right after other students had applied for their summer jobs. I’m going to start applying again a week or two before school starts again, when students will probably quit their summer jobs.

I go in the morning to turn in applications, which I’ve heard is when managers are still there in fast food stores. I dress nice and try to hand them in directly to the manager… but that doesn’t seem to work at all.

I’ve been applying at various jobs in my city, ideal first jobs like fast food places, coffee joints… places that don’t require a lot of experience. I haven’t had one single call back from any place I’ve applied at. My friends and family tell me to call repeatedly… but I feel very odd doing that, and I’m sure it would be annoying.

I’m so sick of having to share a car with my mom (a result of having no money, of course)… I just don’t know what to do. So my question is: What can I do to stand out to managers without being ostentatious and/or seeming like a stalker?

And another completely different question: Does having a GED really look horrible to employers? I’m getting one and starting at a local community college… it’s not like I get bad grades, I just think high school’s pointless.

Okay, I’m going to try not to gush, but I so want you to send me a resume when you’re out of college. And I don’t mean that in a condescending, cheek-pinching way; I mean it sincerely.

So. No one has any job experience at 16, because in most places you’re not allowed to hold a paying job before 16. So you’re not in any way behind the curve. And in a ton of ways, you’re ahead of it. For instance, I’m pretty sure you’re the only 16-year-old who’s written to me, and probably the only one who’s reading me or other career blogs. Which means you’re picking up a ton of info and advice that your peers don’t have, but even aside from that, it says something really important about who you are: You’re someone who seeks out resources and knowledge, someone who’s probably pretty resourceful, and I strongly suspect someone who’s pretty smart. This may not be paying off in obvious ways for you right now, but oh let me tell you, it’s going to pay off massively down the road.

You just need to survive your adolescence, and then it gets a lot better.

I don’t think most employers care if you got a GED instead of doing it the traditional way, but they do care about what came after that — meaning they do want to see a college degree, preferably from a four-year school. So think about transferring to a four-year college after you rack up some credits at your community college. It might be a pain in the ass, but it’ll make things easier for you later.

Now, on to your main question. You’re right that the economy is making it hard for everyone right now, and I like your idea about trying again toward the end of the summer, when there’s likely to be some turnover in the types of jobs you’re targeting. As for what’s going to make you stand out to employers: Being professional, poised, personable, organized, reliable — all those “soft skills” I talk about elsewhere on this site — can move you to the top of the pack.

On the question of how much to call after applying, calling daily is too much. But it’s fine to call a few days after turning in your application, and if you don’t reach the manager herself, it’s fine to call every few days until you do. (This runs counter to my advice for professional jobs, where that kind of thing comes across as too stalkerish, but in my experience, for some reason it’s fine to do with retail, restaurants, etc. Different culture.)

You might also consider volunteering somewhere, even if it’s just one afternoon a week, because it’ll give you additional experience to put down on applications.

What other advice do people have?

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. llamaface*

    I have to say your advice is spot on!

    I will add – I got my GED when I was 17 (the minimum age in my state at the time). I went directly to community college, and then to a 4-year school. It was never a problem. (And now I'm in a Master's program and have a pretty cool job while in school).

  2. Anonymous*

    I sympathise with the job applicant! As a multi-unit manager in the food & beverage industry, this time of year is definitely the toughest for students/youth to apply for jobs. Managers are hesitant to hire students mid-summer, as after training many choose to abandon the job to return to school in September. I say don't give up hope and keep trying though, becuase mid-August can be panic time as many notices of resignation come in around then! The fact that the writer is so determined to find advice about how to find a job is truly admirable and I can say persitence and passion truly pay off at the entry level! Research the culture/mission/priorities of the company that you're applying for, because this will shine through when you get in contact with the manager that you are applying to them for the right reasons! GOOD LUCK and best wishes! I'm sure that success is in the future!

  3. Kelly O*

    Don't forget that in some places you can earn college and high school credits at the same time. I don't know about where your questioner lives, but one of the girls I work with here in Texas started taking college credit classes while she was in high school, and those counted toward her diploma. Might even consider picking up a night, weekend, or online class to get that started.

    As far as the first job thing goes, I stumbled upon my first couple of jobs; just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Don't forget about your parents' friends, or your friends who may be working somewhere right now. You could make the argument that networking starts now.

  4. Kerry*

    I agree with every single point. AAM said everything I was going to say (especially about just having to survive adolescence and the fact that it will get much better…you're in the home stretch there).

    I really think you'll have no problem once the kids start quitting to go back to school. You're obviously smarter than the average bear.

  5. Anonymous*

    A 4 year degree is almost a must nowadays. Also, if you're struggling to figure out a major and not completely terrible with numbers, accounting is something that will aid in finding a job after college. It could also help in getting a nice job with the federal government (IRS), they pay well with good benefits. That's just a suggestion, of course. I wish I had known that when I went to college. I ended up with a degree that I need a masters or more to find a decent job.

  6. Anonymous*

    Volunteering will help (even if it doesn't pay the bills). Should consider volunteering at the local library – perhaps helping teach computer classes at the library, a presentation on good web resources for job seekers, or doing clerical work. If the library doesn't have a position that does that already – offer to develop it. Great resume builder.

  7. Erica*

    Wow – good for you for being on the ball at 16! I can't say the same for most your age.

    Although a GED doesn't look bad, as a manager I may question why you're doing it at 16. If you tell me its because you "think high school's pointless" I might be a bit worried about your willingness to do menial tasks that usually come along with jobs in fast food, retail, etc.

    Put a positive spin on it. Tell them that you're really smart and ambitious, and wanted to get a GED so that you could move on to the more challenging environment that a community college offers. It makes you seem smart, as opposed to seeming like a hurting teenager who has had a miserable HS experience. Trust me, you're not the first to want to ditch HS a few years early, but you're probably one of the few who wants to ditch it and move on to higher education.

    When are you starting community college? If in the fall, and you don't have any job luck by then, take advantage of the career services center that I'm sure they offer. They may be able to hook you up with one of their alums. Best of luck!!

  8. TheLabRat*

    In my area it's not uncommon for those first job type jobs to not call until at least a month after you've handed in your application. Just a tip.

  9. Anonymous*

    The economy is definitely deterring this 16-year-old. There are tons of older, more experience people competing for jobs that teens usually take up. So I would say hang in there, realize it's a bad time right now for young people without much experience.

    I did want to suggest that the asker be a little less concerned about being "annoying" and instead try stand out as much as possible in person. I was very shy when I first applied to jobs, but now I realize it's okay to be persistent to get what you want. Are you just going in, saying hi, and dropping off a resume? Why not try and converse with people, ask questions, show that you're really interested, and instead of just filling out a form, attach a personal statement or your own resume? Then definitely follow up to express your interest and ask about next steps. You could even ask a manager why they didn't choose you or if they have advice. Most managers may not be responsive, but some might give you good insight into the situation. It's not annoying as long as you are sincere and don't call every 5 minutes. On the contrary, it makes people remember you and puts you at the top of their minds.

    As I said I used to just do the bare minimum required for a job and hope people would call me. But you really have to be proactive.

  10. Diane*

    Hang in there. Volunteer at something you find interesting (reading to kids after school, helping out at a nature preserve or zoo, whatever). Lots of organizations would love your help, and it gives you experience. It also gives you a chance to find out what you like or hate.

    As for the GED, in some states, they have programs that allow high school students to take community college classes for FREE and graduate with both a high school and Associates degree. Your high school counselor should be able to tell you if this is the case. It's a great deal, and a great opportunity. If your state doesn't offer a program like that, apply for financial aid for college. You could get awarded Work Study, which means the college or participating employer gets funding to provide you with a part-time job. Even if you don't get Work Study, your college should have a job board and some sort of leads to local job openings for their students, including at the college (working the coffee stand, doing office work, etc.).

    Good luck!

  11. Bohdan*

    Your advantages at 16:

    1. You don't have a bad job history (job hopping, etc).
    2. You're cheap
    3. You're willing to work hard
    4. You're really cheap, as in you can probably work for free.
    *Jason Seiden has clarified 2 and 3 really well.

    I wouldn't just look for fast food joints and coffee shops. Figure out something you might actually enjoy doing, find someone in charge of hiring there, and offer to work for free (not full-time, part-time allows you to still look for other work easily).

    Sometimes this is called an 'unpaid internship' but then people often think you need to be close to having a degree. Not being 18 yet will make it tougher but not impossible.

  12. sd*

    I second the commenter who said try the local library. In addition to volunteer work, libraries in my experience are happy to hire first-time-workers for shelving jobs. They're often very part time, and with high turnover, not unlike fast food.

    As a plus, librarians are great to use as references, whether they be for jobs or for higher education.

    I write this as someone who sits on interview panels for a library – bright, resourceful, thoughtful folks like your correspondent are exactly who we want working for us!

  13. Anonymous*

    My advice as an 18 year old in the food industry – this is one situation where blasting your resume to every business in town is COMPLETELY appropriate and useful. And calling every few days is annoying, but also effective. My manager hired someone the other day just so they would stop bothering him about it. Bad hiring practices? Sure. But you can't expect to find world-class management at your first fast-food job.
    Also, these kinds of jobs are much easier to get if you know someone in the company. Do any of your acquaintances have jobs? Ask them to put in a good word for you with their manager (after you have put in your application). Do any of your parents friends own businesses? Ask them to hire you – even if it's just a few hours a week.
    You also may want to try working for yourself – mowing lawns, cleaning houses, babysitting, etc. If you get a reputation in the community and some regular clients you can make a ton of money with minimal experience.

  14. Susan*

    Great for you about being so invested in career/work advice at your age. I wouldn't have even thought about such a thing when I was 16.

    I had a summer birthday as well, and the year of my 16th birthday was during a recession. I looked for months, and I remember having bad feelings because I was turned down by everyone. At that time, I didn't put two and two together to realize most of my competition had already been hired by the time I was able to start looking and the recession certainly didn't help out. Hey, I was young and very naive.

    My parents were very supportive and encouraged me to keep applying and talk to employees at places that I particularly wanted to work. It ultimately paid off. I was hired by my favorite grocery chain, and I kept that job until I left home 2.5 years later. They hired me because I actually filled out the math test the give to prospective cashiers and actually got the questions right. The manager admitted that he was skeptical when I first walked in because of my age. I was applying to be a cashier handling quite a bit of money for my age at that time.

    To end my long story, it turned out to be a great place to work. They loved that I worked hard and was smart, so they trained me on the job in every different area of the store to eventually move into management. By the time I left, I was managing 25 employees, most of whom were older than me at that time. I really only left because I always had a dream of going to college and becoming a scientist. There were no universities close to where I lived, so I had to leave.

    Just don't give up. Sometimes not getting the first or second job you apply for isn't a bad thing. You never know what lies around the corner. It sounds corny, especially when you've been looking for a long time, but you'll find something given enough time and meeting the right people.

  15. Kerry*

    My first job was also in a grocery store. It rocked. That was when I was 15. I'm 38 now. It might STILL be the best job I ever had, especially when the seniors graduated and moved on and I got promoted to the coveted role of Produce Girl (that was the title, for real).

    Grocery stores are good because you get a wider range of shifts to choose from (because they're open much longer hours than the stores at the mall). Plus, they're more recession-proof than mall stores or restaurants. People don't NEED Applebee's or Banana Republic, but they always need groceries.

  16. Ask a Manager*

    Weird, I worked in a grocery store as a teenager too. I LOVED it. I got to hang out with the manager in his office all the time, eating food from the store deli and watching all the customers through the one-way mirror that surrounded the office.

  17. Anonymous*

    Are there any businesses opening in your area? Three of the five jobs I had as a teenager came from places that haven't even opened yet. They hire a ton of people, so they aren't always being as picky.

  18. Vanessa M.*

    This might sound cheesy, but start your own business! Don't lose hope – refocus. What are your hobbies? Talents? A handful of years ago when I was 18, I started my own tutoring business over the summer. I charged 1/2 of what retired teachers or Kaplan charged (I got a nice $20/hour) and had 2 clients a few times per week. We met at Starbucks and I found them using Craigslist. It was wonderful – I was doing what I loved and making a little bit of money. One of my friends did lawn-care, another dog walking, another childcare, and another house-sitting. We were busy girls that year! Best of luck to you.

  19. Wizaard*

    For those quick to admonish a remark like "high school is pointless," I strongly encourage you to look into Kirsten Olson (www.kirstenolson.org) and her book Wounded by School.

    From industriousness to be resourceful to hanging out here, I agree with commending this young adult who is looking for answers.

  20. Jess*

    It's not just you. I'm a 21 year old student entering my senior year at college, with five years of work experience, and great references. I could not for the life of me manage to find a retail/fast food/gas station type job in May this year, or for that matter, get anyone to respond to job inquiries. No one is hiring. I managed to get a job as a nanny, and loved it, so if you have any interest/skills in childcare, go for it! Same goes for pet care (I have a friend who does quite well with such jobs). If you can't find anything, trying again at the end of the summer is a GREAT idea, as many jobs will open up. And looking back, I wish I'd had the courage and good sense to get a GED at 16 and start taking college courses. Much better use of your time.

  21. Anonymous*

    im 16 … i have no money … i start collage in september … my dad says i need to get a job so i can start to pay rent … i am proper shitting myself now because every place i contact eaither never answers or say no … this credit crunch isnt helping 1 little bit… i am seriously considering just iving up and dealing with what ever happens …. 4 c's two a's and two b's dosnt get u anywere these days :(

  22. Anonymous*

    Whatever you do, take a writing class. I am in an industry where I regularly hire people straight out of college, and with this generation of texters, no one can write. Learn how to write well and spell properly, and you will have a leg up on even college graduates.

  23. Anonymous*

    I seriously feel you. I'm also 16, and in need of a job to help support my family, and I've been searching for a job for six months already. Applied to 25+ locations as of March 2010, no single call received.. I even spent the whole summer volunteering at the local library, probably it's still not good enough..

  24. Meredith*

    I have to say, I am extremely glad I found your blog. I myself am 16 and struggle with the same issues, althought I do wish to go to at least a four year university and not get my GED, I do plenty of volunteer work every week and struggle to find an employer who can look beyond my lack of experience. I have done everything, gotten my food handlers license and all. And with at least 10 hrs of volunteer a month I find that jobs at 16 are extremely hard to come by. I desperately want to work at my local Barmes and Noble, I’m a huge book nerd. But there requirement says 18. So for now I’m seeking out other jobs with areas I am passionate about, bagel shops, public libraries, and other establishments. Still I have no luck. If you have any more adive to give me on what I am doing wrong it would be appreciated!

  25. Amber*

    Haha yeah, I’m 17 myself and I can’t find a job! >_>; I’m not looking all THAT hard, I’ll admit, but I’ve probably applied to around 50 places already and nada! :(

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