By Deborah L. Cohen
CHICAGO, Jan 10 (Reuters) - When mother of three Angela Allyn takes to Facebook , it’s usually not to post pictures of her latest party, but to drum up business for her entrepreneurial teenage son, Alec.
“Teenage boy available for schlepping, sitting and various cleanup. Message me if interested” is her typical post. She has put her social networking skills behind Alec’s business in part because she realizes that the traditional job market is tight and “it’s really hard to get a job as a young person.”
The Allyns seem to be succeeding in that space where the growing underground teen economy meets proactive and socially networked parents. Angela has been finding Alec enough work to fill the time left after homework, cross country and track, activities, and he’s using his earnings to support his expensive cycle racing hobby.
Job opportunities for teens have declined in recent years, in part because older and sometimes overqualified applicants compete for the burger-flipping, shirt-folding gigs that used to be their specialty. The number of young people aged 16 to 24 employed during the peak summer month of July was down to 48.8 last year from 59.2 percent five years earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There’s anecdotal evidence that an increasing numbers of teens are filling the gaps in the economy and their wallets by doing odd jobs or selling the technical skills at which many excel. And their parents are promoting them — via Facebook, LinkedIn, neighborhood chatrooms and more.
“You’re your kid’s pimp,” joked April Rudin, a Fort Lee, New Jersey, publicist who has brokered her two sons’ abilities to do everything from shovel driveways to create Powerpoint presentations.
Tapping social media connections is an ideal way to leverage those sites’ networking potential, especially because it is the medium teens “love and live in,” says Nimish Thakkar, a New York job coach. He has observed several of his clients engaging in the practice on behalf of their teens. But it raises some questions as well, about how much help parents can offer without being overinvolved, and about how to keep kids safe online while promoting their businesses.
Allyn advertised on Facebook and Craigslist for her son in part because at his age, 15, Alec’s own network includes few people with hiring potential. He hasn’t built a website, she said, largely because it might draw interest during periods when he is overloaded with schoolwork and extracurricular activities. The two have worked together to research how to price jobs but she leaves it to him to work out the details.
“I will hand him the contact information,” said Allyn, an arts educator for the city of Evanston, Illinois. “I don’t get in the middle of negotiating.”
That’s one way she draws the line between herself and the dreaded “helicopter” syndrome of parental overinvolvement.
“It’s one thing to help kids build bridges, it’s another to help them cross,” said Michael Woodward, an organizational psychologist specializing in workplace issues. “You have to be the coach - not the doer.”
It doesn’t always work out that way, Rudin found. Her expertise in social media led her to broker the services of her teenage sons online, sometimes without asking first. She recalled promising that one of them would shovel a neighbor’s drive; when he didn’t show up, she in the uncomfortable position of having to make excuses.
Rudin, who also subcontracted portions of her own work to her older son honing his skills as a creator of online slide presentations. After he completed jobs, she would send tweets about his expertise to her Twitter following, sometimes leading to additional requests.
That son, also named Alec, is now a college sophomore. He conceded his mother sometimes took a heavy-handed approach, but said he has no complaints. The experience he gained has been parlayed into a healthy side business creating PowerPoint presentations for students and corporate customers. A typical job brings in $200 to $300.
“It’s worked out for everyone,” he said. “It taught me the meaning of a deadline. In the professional world you don’t have much leeway.”
Most kids have a much harder time pushing much above minimum wage, one reason parents should stay apprised of terms being set on each job, said Denise Drake, a Kansas City employment attorney. She stressed that it is important for parents to understand work rules in their particular state.
“They need to be cognizant of the what the child labor laws are so that kids don’t get taken advantage of,” said Drake, conceding: “It’s abundantly clear that most kids and parents don’t report that kind of income. It’s not legal but it happens.”
Marketing experts point to safety as another justification for parents to play a supervising role in how online jobs are being procured.
“I think there is a lot of caution required,” said Sima Dahl, a social media consultant who blogs about career promotion at marketmycareer.com. She advises parents to steer clear of responding to posts on open sites such as Craigslist, where it is difficult to screen the source of listings.
“The first course of action is always your own network,” she said. “It is a very safe way to go.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen, a New York-based writer and mother of three, said a collaborative approach to part-time job hunting worked well with her son, Aryeh, now a sophomore in college. She regularly culled brooklynian.com, a neighborhood site, as well as a listserv for local parents, to help him secure a variety of jobs beginning when he was a young teen. He supplemented those efforts with old-fashioned leafleting, leaving fliers in neighbors’ mailboxes.
Initially, she took a fairly hands-on on role, pre-interviewing parents requiring babysitting services, for instance. As Aryeh got older and she was more comfortable with his judgment, she turned over more responsibility, and focused more attention on her two daughters, now 13 and 11. They are already experienced at feeding let lizards and caring for cats, if anyone on her social network is interested.