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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Turn teenagers into productive employees

The Natural Employer

"Young people today—they have no work ethic. They have no respect." Have you ever heard this comment? Have you ever said it yourself?

Probably every generation has said something like this about the newest group to enter the workforce. No doubt there are significant differences between generations, and the so-called "millennials" or "Generation Y," the 76 million children of baby boomer parents, are no exception.

There's a lot of buzz about how these kids are different. But if you are an employer looking to hire a teenager, the timeless wisdom of mutual respect and clear expectations will guide you better than any stereotype.

At Seward Cooperative Grocery & Deli in Minneapolis, Front End Manager Nick Seeberger supervises 32 employees, including seven now in high school and three who started while still in high school. "I hold all employees to the same standards, whatever their age," Seeberger said. "Treating younger employees with respect and the same expectations as older employees has led to successful use of teenagers in our store."

Minnesota law dictates that employees under age 16 may not work more than three hours on a school day or past 7 p.m. Nor are they allowed to handle certain hazardous equipment such as meat slicers. At Seward Co-op, young people start out working in the front end as baggers on weekends and after school.

The age range in the department is 14 to 55. "This creates a healthy mix. The younger people look up to older workers as mentors," Seeberger noted. He said the only difference he sees between younger and older employees is in how explicit he must be about attendance and punctuality.

"Teach [young workers] immediately the ins and outs of communicating schedule needs," he advised. "Hammer it home. Be flexible—they've got dances, band practice, sports, homecoming. But they need to be responsible to request time off in a timely fashion."

At the same time, Seeberger, a student himself until last December, said school should come first. "I don't want to tell people how to prioritize, but I don't want to see teenagers fail at school because of work." He tells students in his department, "Let us know your needs so we can make it work."

Because teenagers at Seward are usually working their first jobs, Seeberger offers more coaching to them than to older employees. Without previous experience to draw on, they don't automatically know what's appropriate.

Usually the extra coaching pays off. "They enjoy doing their own self-evaluations. They love to hear they're doing well. When I bring concerns to them they seem more open than older employees to receiving criticism and extra training in order to improve," Seeberger said. "From the manager's perspective, it's not the employee I'm criticizing but the performance. They seem to get that better than older workers. And as soon as they realize that their actions lead to rewards—no one is as happy as a younger person receiving their very first pay raise."

Aaron Courteau echoed Seeberger's advice about explicit expectations. Now a broker in the natural products industry, his first regular paying job was in a natural foods co-op. While Courteau mowed lawns and washed cars for money as a youth, he pointed out that many teenagers entering the work force have never been in the position of being depended on by others. "That's a learned behavior," he said. "If they've never had a job before, they may not realize what's expected of them."

Courteau also urged supervisors to spark their young employees' interest in the work itself. If all you want is a drone who punches in and out, that's what you'll get. But it doesn't have to be that way. "When I'm in a store doing a reset," he said, "often I find young people are willing to listen to my experience. But when some act like they don't care, like they're just there to put in their time, I make a point of talking to them and asking questions. You can encourage people to think, and teach them, through asking questions."

Like Seeberger and Courteau, Seward's Human Resources Manager, Liz Liddiard-Wozniak, stressed the importance of expecting high performance from teenagers in their first jobs. "Don't expect less from someone just because he or she is a young person," she said. "You do teenagers a service to communicate your expectations and hold them to those standards." When asked how today's crop of teenagers compares to earlier generations, Liddiard-Wozniak, herself a parent, responded, "It's hard to describe them as a group. Perhaps in order to right the wrongs of our parents we have allowed our own children to feel they're very special, so special that the rules don't apply to them. When it comes to scheduling, some don't see the needs of the store; they don't see it as a relationship where both parties have needs."

And this points to another problem unique to this generation: overinvolved parents. "We've been part of the neighborhood for over 30 years," Liddiard-Wozniak said. "We have kids working with us whose parents have been long-term members of Seward Co-op. Some have been quite successful. They have grown up with co-ops, and they understand that we serve the larger community."

But sometimes the parents fail to see the boundary between themselves and their children. For example, a mother called Seeberger and asked him to promote her daughter. Eventually the daughter stood up to her mother and told her, "It's my job." A young man left employment at the co-op to go on a trip. When he got back he made no effort to reapply, but both his parents called Seeberger to ask him to rehire their son.

"The teens I've had to terminate have accepted it," said Seeberger, "but parents are another case. If the parents try to get involved in a matter of disciplinary action, I'll talk to them and explain the steps we've gone through, but I tell them that it's really a matter between their child and the store. I was really nervous the first time I had to say that, but I got positive feedback, and I've never had a parent fly off the handle."

Today's teenagers also differ from previous generations in their extraordinarily high comfort level with technology, which comes from a lifelong immersion in computers, e-mail, video games, cell phones and the Internet. When Seward Co-op went to an electronic evaluation system, "it was a piece of cake for the kids," said Liddiard-Wozniak.

No doubt we should expect less resistance to new technology from younger workers. "Today as a consumer you can go into a supermarket and scan the prices and compare them to competitors," Courteau pointed out, "and these kids know that."

But he thinks the challenge for all employees is what doesn't change with technology, such as merchandising. "What's attractive to the eye and what makes common sense—that's experientially learned and intrinsically artistic," he said.

And then there's customer service. Perhaps customers expect a faster response time than in the old low-tech days, but they still want interactions with employees marked by caring and courtesy. Again Liddiard-Wozniak has the same advice to employers: Make your standards clear and explicit up front to your teenage workers, and expect the same high performance from everyone, regardless of age or experience.

When you provide the first work experience in a young person's life, you have the opportunity to give someone a solid foundation for the future. As Liddiard-Wozniak said, "We can help these kids be good employees wherever they go in their lives. If we can create that kind of respectful relationship between employee and employer, it benefits everyone."

Click here to order a copy of Market Overview 2005.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 6/p. 24-25, 39

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