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Summer's coming: Let's put our students to work

What's the first real sign of spring? A robin warbling? New buds on the trees?

What about a determinedly chipper voice mail from "Joshua" or "Megan" or, in my case the other day, Ashley, from a student painting firm? She was my first student cold caller of the season, alerting me that if I wanted to beat the HST, I should schedule an estimate right away.

Yes, it's almost the season for student summer jobs - not just their economic necessity, but their power to transform, to inspire, to teach kids things about work that they won't learn from their parents because parents just don't have that kind of sway.

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Summer jobs not only keep kids in college and university; they are the universal portal to a lifetime of work habits, introducing even the most affluent kids to long, confusing days, workplace politics, psycho bosses and the skills needed to survive all three - enthusiasm, punctuality and resilience being primary among them.

If they don't learn these lessons now, we will end up with an abysmal work force.

Unfortunately, the student summer job landscape has changed dramatically for the worse. There's the entrenchment of unpaid internships, especially in the cultural sector. These internships penalize talented students who simply cannot afford to work for free in their "dream" job environment - and they exploit the privileged kids who can.

Then there's the recession and its aftermath. Last summer, student unemployment hit 20 per cent, the highest since Statistics Canada started tracking it in 1977.

Predictions for this summer's job market vary from abject negativity to a sunnier outlook, such as the one held by Matt Scriven, an enterprising 19-year-old Carleton University student who last year started Studentopolis.ca. His website, devoted exclusively to students, garners 1,200 visitors a day (including prospective employers) and features a map where you can click on a location and find nearby job openings .

"I'm really optimistic my peers will be able to find work this summer," said Mr. Scriven, who studies mass media and Web design. He found a job last summer on his own website.

What lifelong lessons does he think students take away from summer employment?

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"In school, you are mainly with people just like you," he said. "In a summer job you're around other types of people, regular people."

I'll say. You're also around unrelated adults who don't cut you a break if you're late (I know several students who, to their shock, were fired for failing to arrive on time) and who are definitely not chirping "good for you!" every time you finish a task.

It doesn't really matter what kids do for summer employment. Even the most menial jobs can be important if students work for and with people who care about the quality of work being done.

No matter how many years we've been working, we all retain vivid memories of our summer jobs. There were sweet deals - lifeguarding at a ritzy club. Hideous mistakes - painting house exteriors for a boss who had never heard of workplace safety. Dreary endurance tests - totting up columns of numbers at a cubicle farm run by your father's best friend. And eye openers - so that's what will happen to me if I don't finish my degree.

My own summer jobs taught me street smarts (running a day camp in a tough neighbourhood), how to deal with sexual harassment before there were laws against it (an Ontario newspaper littered with creepy male bosses), and how to achieve a balance between being ambitious and being, well, a jerk. Most importantly, I found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Today, when I watch students - many of them more accomplished and poised than I was at their age - navigate summer jobs, I am struck by the poignancy of the process. They will savour forever the day that bold idea they dreamed up made their boss's eyes light up, and they will wince years later when they remember their first major screw-up.

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A charismatic student I hired lost his way spectacularly last summer. Not only did his window-washing crew leave many of our windows unwashed, but he "forgot" to invoice me for six months. The searing talk about professionalism we had on the phone will, I am hopeful, stay with him.

They call this the pampered and catered generation, but there's another side to the story: Teens and twentysomethings have been force-fed the idea that they have to be successful - to the point where they have a generalized panic about failure.

In the past few years, they've also been saturated with the kind of grim economic forecasts that make even the hardiest among us want to cower in our beds each morning.

However, there's nothing like the daily grittiness of an ordinary job to put success and failure into perspective. Because on any job, success and failure happen constantly, sometimes minutes apart. And that knowledge changes your working life. But first you have to get that job.

Hire a student this summer if you can.

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