16-year-old wants help getting a job in food service

Prepare to love this reader. She writes:

My name is Laura, I’m 16, and I am applying anywhere and everywhere for a job. I’ve been researching like crazy as well. Your site is the first one I have come across that DOESN’T confuse the hell out of me. Your advice is fantastic! Here’s the thing; I really need your help. I have zero work experience, I’ve participated in ONE volunteer event, I’m terrible at filling at out applications, I can’t even pronounce the word “resume,” and I’m completely lost on this whole job hunting thing. Of course, I’ve asked my dad for help, but – bless his heart – he’s not exactly Gandhi when it comes to helpful wisdom concerning job hunting.

There’s one job in particular that I want… and I’ll do anything to get it. It’s close to home, and I know I can do this. I’ve got all the confidence and faith in the world, and I will work harder and faster than anyone else. But I need some help, or I’ll never get this ball rolling. I am begging you, please, give a desperate girl some advice? It would mean the absolute world to me!

I wrote back and asked Laura what job she was applying for. When I learned it was a job at a “fast casual” restaurant (that’s a real category), I pulled in reader/commenter Kimberlee Stiens to help because (a) she used to be a manager at a fast food restaurant, and (b) she has lots of opinions on hiring and managing in that environment, and I think they’re good.

Kim took the time to find the company’s job application online and tailored her advice to that, but it’s going to be relevant to food service jobs in general. Here are her tips:

1. For the pay section, I would put just slightly above whatever the minimum wage in your area: if it’s $7.25, I’d go with $8, etc. This shows that you know your value but understand what you might actually be paid.

2. Availability: This is HUGE. I can’t tell you how many apps I’ve thrown out JUST because they said they weren’t available Saturdays, or had complicated availability. If there’s really a day/time that you can’t work, absolutely put it, but make your availability on your app as open as possible. Since I assume you attend school, put your available start time as close as possible to when school gets out. It will also really help if you write that you’re simply available until closing, since it’s hard to work people in that can only work until, say, 10, and can’t stay later to perform closing duties. When you get hired, you can always try to negotiate better hours, but at this point, you’re trying to prove you can meet all your future employer’s expectations.

3. If you have a referral from a current employee, definitely note that on the app.

4. On the question “Why do you want to work here?” this is the part where I’m not as sure. Personally, I advocate that you include a cover letter detailing why you’re awesome (focusing on skills, able-ness to keep a cool head under fire, ability to get along with both customers and employees, etc. If you can work in something about their mission, if you can find what their corporate philosophies are and like what you see, definitely mention that). Then, on the line, you would just say “Please see attached cover letter.” However, this part is iffy. I personally loved cover letters when I was hiring, because we would have 100’s of candidates and very little to distinguish them. However, I remember that we laughed at people who submitted cover letters with their fast food apps in high school. I think it’s a good move, but it’s up to you. Whatever you put in that line, make sure it’s honest and enthusiastic!

5. Their application actually seems really good, giving you lots of leading questions about what you liked about previous jobs, and disliked. For dislikes, make sure that whatever you put is genuine and sincere. Little is more off-putting then hearing fakey things like “I was so much better than everyone else that they couldn’t keep up” or something like that. Granted, you don’t want to say that you hate customers or anything, but try to think of something at that event that you disliked, something that shows that you understand that the life of a server is not perfect, and that you’re prepared to deal with problems like long hours, irate customers and the like.

6. When you drop off your application, dress as though you’re going to the interview. Be impeccably dressed and well-manicured. When you approach, ask for “the shift supervisor or manager.” DON’T ask for the hiring manager; this tells them that you’re just dropping off a resume and they won’t want to bother their managers with it. If you just ask for management, they’ll often assume you’re coming in to complain. Bonus: If that’s the case, they’ll like you more when you give them an application instead. (Note: Don’t come in angry pretending that you want to complain. That’s not what I’m advocating here.)

You DO want to be, physically, in front of the highest up person you possibly can when you give your application. But you definitely don’t want to be a bother about it. If the manager isn’t there, give your application to whoever asks for it; your cover letter will be the item that helps you stand out. But you should never waste an opportunity to make a good first impression.

7. NEVER hand in an application through the drive-thru. At my old workplace, we were told to mark any apps that came through the drive-thru, and those people were never hired. Stupid? Sure. There were probably some good apps in that pile. It’s just an example of something easy to avoid (not to mention the drive thru doesn’t give you a chance to put yourself in front of someone important).

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Kate*

    Also, I’ve seen a job applicant come into a restaurant during the lunch rush and ask for the manager. She was rather rudely told to come back later. I’d say try to drop off your application during off-peak hours.

    1. Under Stand*

      Exactly what I thought Kim forgot to mention. Other than that, awesome tips on how to get a job in a service industry.

  2. Jesse*

    I’d like to add my two cents. I hire for student employee positions at a local community college. Open availability is usually the first way in our highly sought student positions. After you’ve been there a semester, you can be specific about which hours you’d like to work. This is a perk that we give our hardworking students.

    For newly graduated students, I always like seeing their high school teachers or coaches under “References.” Teamwork is important, especially in food service. Teachers and coaches can tell me easily if you’re a team player, or not. Also, this lets me know that you read the “references” requirement. I DO put aside applications if the references say “family member” or “family friend.” Our applications specifically say “No family and family friends, etc.”

    1. ThatHRGirl*

      Exactly what I was going to say Jesse.

      Even if someone has not had a job before, any kind of extracurriculars they have participated in can be helpful to giving them that teamwork experience, punctuality, dedication, fast thinking skills, etc.

      If Laura could articulate some of those things in her cover letter, that would be extremely helpful. She’ll need to explain how she developed those skills.

      1. Kim Stiens*

        While on balance extra curriculars are good, as a hiring manager, having a lot of after-school commitments are just more things that will cause that person to not be able to work when I need them to. I’m not saying not to do them, or to lie about them, I’m just being realistic. They’re not a total plus. In my job, the most reliable people were often the people that simply had nothing else going on after school… they were interested in making money, not French club or the soccer team.

  3. Joey*

    2. is bad advice. At least the part about misleading the manager about being available til closing then trying to negotiate better hours after you get the job. That’s lying or at minimum misleading. And I bet the op doesn’t really know how late she’s obligating herself to if she puts til closing.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think Kim meant that you should lie, but rather that to get your foot in the door you need to be flexible … and once you’ve been there a while you have more standing to ask for (not insist on) better hours.

    2. misunderstanding*

      I read that to mean that rahter than putting available til 10:00 you should try to be flexible and be available until close. Not that you should lie and say close when you have to leave at 10:00.

      Also, it’s not unreasonable or misleading to believe “I would like to work Saturdays instead of Sundays but I’ll wait until I start to feel that out” It doesn’t mean you plan on “demanding” a better schedule. It means that you wait and see what the scheduling protocol is before you ask for a particular schedule.

      Maybe everyone else would like to work Sundays so your request to work Saturdays will be welcome, you don’t know until you get in there.

    3. Anonymous*

      She says, “If there’s really a day/time that you can’t work, absolutely put it, but make your availability on your app as open as possible. ” I think the point was that instead of putting the hours you would prefer to work, put down your full availability. So if you are available all evening and the store closes at 10pm, put that you are available “until close” instead of “10pm” because the former shows that you can work until 10:30 or 10:45 if needed. I also remember from my HS days it was a little confusing because my HS kids will be working 10 – 20 hours per week, but there available time amounts to 30 hours per week. I wasn’t sure if “availability” meant the full 30 hours per week when I didn’t have anything else to do, or the 20 hours per week I wanted to be actually working.

      The OP should, however, be cautious, because there is probably a time limit on how late she can work on school nights. There may also be restrictions about closing if she would be the only person in the restaurant.

      1. Kimberlee*

        Well, the restaurant will be aware of any legal requirements for when a 16 year old can work (and there definitely are laws about 16 year olds in some states, but not others). The poster doesn’t really need to worry about that… if the law makes scheduling her inconvenient, they won’t hire her. It’s unfortunate, but there’s nothing she can do about her age! The last fast food place I worked switched recently to a policy of only hiring people 18 and above. It happens.

    4. Under Stand*

      Again, that is something that is open to interpretation. If you live in a state where labor laws will not allow a teenager to work past a certain hour, put that time down.

  4. Laurie*

    Wow. Great advice. Love the one about asking for the shift supervisor, and not the hiring manager. I used to work a well-known deli/sub chain, and this would’ve worked.

  5. Anonymous*

    I just want to wish the OP the best of luck! Your work ethic and drive will serve you well throughout life.

  6. Tami*

    Re: #2
    Remember that OP is 16, so there may be child labor laws in her state that prevent her from working past a certain hour on school nights, so working “until close” might not be an option. For example, in Ohio, when school is in session 16 and 17 year olds “cannot be employed before 7:00 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. if not employed after 8:00 p.m. the previous night; or after 11:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. There is no limitation in hours per day or week.”

    With that being said, keeping availability open is definitely an option. I would hope that the employer is well aware of the child labor laws in their respective state.

    1. Under Stand*

      just because they know the law does not mean they will follow it, especially less scrupulous owner/ operators who think they will be able to get away with it because it is after DOL closes for night.

      1. Kimberlee*

        This may be true in general, but even the less scrupulous places I’ve worked have always followed these rules, because the consequences are so high if they don’t (and it’s so easy to follow them…. if you don’t want to worry about it, there’s no shortage of people over 18 to hire). Plus, the OP is applying at a major chain that would obviously be compliant with such rules.

  7. JT*

    Very cool to read a motivated 16-year old asking for and getting good advice.

    I wish the economy was doing better for everyone!

  8. TheAssistant*

    This reader is me when I was 16! I had no work experience, but was dying to work at a “fast casual” restaurant. I put my best foot forward on my application, and included a resume (babysitting, school projects at my high school, etc.). It was a resume that would make Allison cringe, but it got the attention of the hiring manager. He said he NEVER sees resumes and he was so impressed with my attention to detail at 16 that he had to bring me in.

    When you drop off your resume, don’t forget to patiently wait in line rather than grabbing the first frazzled-looking employee you can. Anyone who handed me a resume while I was juggling coffee pots got placed at the bottom of the pile.

    Wear your best clothes to the interview – it will make you seem light years ahead of your peers.

  9. Karen Datangel*

    Oh gosh, I wish I had known about asking for “the shift manager or supervisor” when I attempted to get my first job as a cashier at a movie theater. I knew someone who had worked there and he gave me their direct phone line (As opposed to the automated system that lists showtimes). I pestered the poor hiring manager at that location (Yup, another thing I should have NOT done at the time!). Luckily, someone else became the hiring manager a few months later, took a look at my application, interviewed me, and gave me a job on the spot (I didn’t even have to bring up my connection there)!

    Anyway, best of luck to you OP! Also, I am wondering if you’ve done any extracurriculars in school? I think listing them in your resume might help a lot, if you have skills that could be applicable to the position. For example, I was on the student council for pretty much my entire high school career, and tasks like fundraising, selling dance tickets, working in the student store, running meetings, and doing data entry helped me develop work skills for when I was trying to get a job at the time.

    1. Sarah*

      I think a cover letter might be overkill, but we hire teenagers a few times a year at my job for very menial work, and we are always impressed by the ones who bring a resume. I can see a cover letter being a good chance to sell yourself for a first job by mentioning skills you have learned from extracurricular activities that wouldn’t necessary show up on your resume or application. For example, “I learned the importance of treating guests well by volunteering at Thanksgiving at our soup kitchen.”

    2. ThatHRGirl*

      I think the goal here is to present yourself in a professional manner and act like you care about making a good impression.
      Obviously if she does hand in a resume, it’s going to be a very short one due to lack of experience.

      I don’t remember Kim or AAM suggesting that she hand in a resume, actually, but instead a “cover letter” (in this case, just a short letter paperclipped to the application) to help her stand out from the crowd, as well as address the lack of experience and highlight any relevant skills she may have learned through school or other activities.

  10. Sarah*

    We hire teenagers a few times a year, and this is the advice I’d give them:
    -Don’t bother applying if you’ve been kicked out of our building before. We remember you. Yes, this happens.
    -Wear something nice every time you come in from the day you ask for an application to your last day on the job (if hired). Khakis and a dress shirt are fine. Much more than that is overkill.
    -Be nice & polite to any (and ALL) staff members you encounter during the process. We will ask the janitor, front desk staff, etc. for their opinions of you before scheduling interviews and after concluding them. We take this feedback strongly into consideration.
    -Return interview scheduling or any other phone calls promptly.
    -Do not put family members as references. Use teachers, coaches, parents of babysitting clients, etc. instead. It should not be difficult to find 3 people who can say a few nice words about you. If it is, you need to work on improving your social skills. Also, I see a lot of applications where friends are listed. Your reference should be adults. If you’ve done some work of some kind for a family friend, that is fine, but I don’t want to call a reference and find out he/she is 16!
    -When you come in to pick up an application, and especially when you show up for an interview, COME ALONE. It is not a good time to come with your BFF, or your mother. If you rely on someone else for transportation, have them wait in the car. Or send them to the coffee shop down the block for a half hour.
    -Get a book from the library or research common interview questions and practice answers. With high schoolers, we want to know that they are getting decent grades (we don’t want kids to flunk out because they are working for us) and we would like to know that they’ve thought about plans after high school. Have an answer ready for why you want to work at our organization.

  11. Rejected*

    I’m impressed that at 16 years old, the OP is reading this blog and already trying to put her best foot forward in the current job market. Good for her! I hope she gets the job! Maybe we can get an update soon.

  12. The Retail Raptor*

    As a manager who hires not-necessarily skilled, not-necessarily-degreed, not-necessarily-experienced people (retail, instead of food/waitstaff, but I’m going through a very similar pool), the single best way is to find a friend that works there who DOESN’T bitch about how much their job sucks. The ones that bitch are likely the ones that the managers don’t respect (they generally either take the bad attitude with them to work, or the managers are making them hate their jobs), and if one of the less successful employees recommended someone, I’d honestly be pretty meh about the prospect.

    Every time one of the best recommended someone, though, I always sat up and took notice. Always. I might not hire them, depending on how they did in the interview (even the best recommendations won’t save you if you totally bork it), but I’ll always give them more attention than I may have otherwise.

    1. ThatHRGirl*

      I wish that’s how it worked for me… Part of my recruiting workload is hiring $10/hr light labor (packaging/sorting of goods) and I have terrible luck with referrals.

      I’ve noticed that current employees don’t seem to have much grace or tact when referring people either – they think that bugging me until I call their friend will work, until I flat out have to tell them I’m not going to call them…. Or they pester me about why the person wasn’t called or hired (not allowed to talk about that)

      The worst (and if you are ever thinking about this DON’T EVER do it) is when people think it will work to just call and say “I got a call from this number” or “You called me about an interview” and think I’ll just go for it. I’m not dumb, I remember who I did and didn’t call (because I’ve marked the app or not) and you have just insured that I will NEVER call you.

      1. khilde*

        “The worst (and if you are ever thinking about this DON’T EVER do it) is when people think it will work to just call and say “I got a call from this number” or “You called me about an interview” and think I’ll just go for it. I’m not dumb, I remember who I did and didn’t call (because I’ve marked the app or not) and you have just insured that I will NEVER call you.”

        I’m dying to know what you say back to these people and what their reaction/response is!!!! Do tell!

  13. Linda*

    “focusing on skills, able-ness to keep a cool head …”
    What’s going on, people? Able-ness? What happened to “ability”?There’s a strong connection between mind and language, and judging by these weird instances … there’s no hope as to where we’re going.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think she knows the word “ability,” as she uses it a few words later :) I’m thankful Kim took the time to volunteer this extensive advice and she can say “able-ness” all she wants.

    2. Joey*

      I’ll never understand why commenters want to point out such insigificant things like mispeled words punctuation errors and unproper use of words.Unless it confuses the meaning of what’s being said who cares.It contributes absolutely nothing to the conversation an is a waste of space

      1. Aramis*

        I don’t often, but in the past when I’ve noticed a spelling, grammar or punctuation mistake I’ve emailed the author of the piece (if that information is available) to let them know “Hey you may want to correct this.” To my mind broadcasting it in the comments just makes you look like an attention needing know-it-all. Following this up by bemoaning the likely fate of humanity based on this one person’s (often minor) mistake makes you look a little *overly dramatic* to boot.

  14. Jo*

    Re No 7: I’m astounded anyone would hand in a job application through the drive-thru, but obviously it wasn’t an infrequent occurence for there to be a policy about it. I’d throw those applications straight in the bin.

    1. ThatHRGirl*

      I ask my security to tell me when someone illegally parks in the handicap space to come in and hand in an application… Our parking lot is set up so there are a few handicap spaces in the front and about 100 feet before the other spaces start – if you’re too lazy to walk from a parking lot then you shouldn’t work for me :)

      1. Anonymous*

        I love this! It’s so true that it matters how you handle yourself, from where you park to how you treat the janitor.

        This reminds me of an example from a few years ago. I was running a dance audition for a theme park show. Everyone who did well was asked to stay for a callback in the afternoon. While I was eating lunch, one of the auditioning performers complained to me about the day’s schedule and told me how we should run things. When the production team later asked what I thought of him, I said he could definitely dance the part but I also mentioned his complaints. He was not hired.

  15. jennie*

    I’d like to give a few tips that weren’t covered but often come up for me when younger people apply for jobs:

    – Make sure your voice mail message is set up to be at least neutral, if not professional. I’ve heard way too many long songs, jokes and inappropriate outgoing messages when trying to leave a voice mail to set up an interview.

    – On your application, list the phone number where it is easiest to reach you. If that’s your home number, make sure other members of your household know you’re applying for jobs. The main problem I’ve had here is non-English speaking parents or grandparents answering the phone and being unable to take a message for the applicant. Same issue when young kids answer the phone.

    – If you apply by email or list your email address on your resume (which you should), make sure it is not vulgar or overly cutesy. Using hottiee69@email.com isn’t necessarily going to disqualify you, but it won’t help you be taken seriously. Get a free email account with your name in it or something else neutral.

    I love it when teenage applicants stand out for being professional. Writing a decent resume, putting some effort into the application and being enthusiastic scores a lot of points with people who work with teenagers all the time.

    1. ThatHRGirl*

      OMIGOD the ringback tones. I forgot about the ringback tones. They are so unnecessary and annoying (except that I like to put them on speakerphone and my temp and I will dance really obnoxiously to the song… until you pick up of course) :)

  16. anth*

    This post is fantastic. I held steady babysitting jobs all through high school, but my brother worked as a host in a restaurant during school and I’ve sent the link to him.

  17. Anon.*

    I just want to add that you should NOT under any circumstances put down the name of an employee working at the restaurant unless you speak with them beforehand. There were 4 girls from my high school who worked at the same store (myself included) and one day a classmate came in and submitted an application that had all four of us listed as her employee referrals. Sure enough, our manager marched each of us back to his office to ask us our impressions of the girl. As far as I heard, two of them seemed shocked she had put them down but didn’t say anything bad, and two of us were shocked and told our manager she was a complete flake who never did her homework, consistently talked back to teachers and spent most of her time talking about the guys she’d hooked up with and how much she couldn’t wait to have a place to meet her secret boyfriend who was banned from her house when she got a job.

    Just because you KNOW someone doesn’t mean they’ll refer you.

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