Changing the Way We See Our Students

By: Tim Elmore


Like so many other districts, the Northwest School District in Missouri faced a shortage of employees. It’s actually happening all over the country in almost every industry. “Help Wanted” signs go unanswered as fewer Americans want to take on lower-paying jobs in light of a pandemic. In the NW school district, custodial, food service, and before and after school program jobs were needed and they couldn’t find workers.

We often fail to see that the solution to the labor shortage might be right under our noses. 

The Chief Human Resource Officer, Mark Catalana, suddenly had an epiphany when he thought about all the job openings in their school district. So many of those jobs serving students could actually be done by students. So, he began to make the job openings known among teens in the area and quickly got applicants. Twenty-five of those students have already been hired and are in the onboarding process. Catalana said, “We feel the opportunity to be employed by the District allows them to stay connected to their school and community as well as provide real-life work skills beyond high school.”

Youth Aren’t the Problem; They’re the Solution

At Growing Leaders, we partnered with Harris Interactive to poll over 2,000 adults across the U.S. We discovered, 64 percent—almost two in every three—of adults don’t believe Generation Z will be ready for a career upon graduation. If they aren’t, could it be we need to stop seeing youth as a problem and begin seeing them as a solution? For example, what if the after-school programs for children up to the fifth grade could be staffed by juniors and seniors in high school? What if the foodservice jobs could be filled by older teens who need the income and the work experience? What if the custodial job openings could be done by students who needed the income and who have a high attention to detail?

When adolescents have nothing meaningful to do, they’ll create their own meaning. This can be good news or bad news, depending on what they come up with. For too long, parents, teachers, and coaches have only offered facsimiles of real-world experiences to teens. We’ve been afraid our kids will get hurt, be unsafe, be unready, and fail; and consequently, we’ve sheltered them from the very experiences that matured and developed past generations of adolescents. When the Northwest School District specifically targeted students for jobs, they won in many ways.

The Northwest School District Won When They Hired Students

  1. They filled a labor shortage the district was suffering from.
  1. They provided income to students who needed it.
  1. They furnished real-world work experience for students.
  1. They offered alternative jobs to those who required late shifts or were far away.
  1. They allowed teachers to make the jobs a part of students’ educational experience.

I believe Millennials and Generation Z are wide open to work right now; in fact, they’ve been known to take on several side hustles, from online jobs to DoorDash to UberEats. It’s the gig economy. My friend Leneita Fix sent me two articles that introduced me to the term over-employed. More and more people are working several jobs, up to six the last she counted, and making good income in case of another economic downturn. But it’s troublesome to learn why they feel they can manage so many gigs. People say they’re doing this because expectations are so low in the workplace. Employers hope to just get by, to plug holes. They don’t expect excellence in customer service, quality control, or timely product delivery.

Consider the terrible message this may send to a young generation: You don’t have to give your all to this job. In fact, you can do the bare minimum. You really don’t matter.

No one is literally saying this to young employees, but that’s exactly what low expectations communicate to a new generation. Let me ask you: What message are you sending to young workers today? Is the message they receive: You can give as little as possible and still make good money?  No doubt this pandemic is challenging. We’re all trying to manage it. But the answer is not to lower what we expect of people as they lay the track for their careers over the next several years. I’ve spoken to some who feel they are “just a number.”

The Message We Need to Send

As you consider the young people under your care, evaluate your words and actions. Do they accidentally send the wrong messages?  Let me suggest a course correction if needed.

  1. I believe in you, and because I do, I maintain high expectations for your performance.
  2. You matter to me, and because you do, I will give you meaningful work to do.
  3. I know you’re capable of handling high-stakes work, so I’ll hold you accountable for it.
  4. I know you have talent, so I will offer real jobs, not just artificial busywork.

 Mark Catalana underscored how the Northwest school district jobs can be part of the student’s development of life skills. “Our priority will always be their education, and we are committed to providing a flexible schedule so they can continue to focus on their academics and still be involved in school-related activities.” This kind of work, however, is all part of their education.

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Changing the Way We See Our Students