WHY KIDS SHOULD LEARN ABOUT WORK They don't know much now. For a better work force -- with a better work ethic -- companies should help forge links between academic subjects and business needs.
By Alan Deutschman REPORTER ASSOCIATE Mark D. Fefer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHAT DO KIDS know about the world of work, that mysterious adult realm hidden behind the concrete walls of factories and the reflective windows of office towers? Not much, and not nearly enough to inspire them to try harder in school. One reason for the nation's 29% high school dropout rate is that young people don't see a clear connection between what they're supposed to learn in class and what they'll need to succeed in a career. Why should a kid struggle through math if he doesn't have a clue as to how he'll use it? But kids are tomorrow's labor force or tomorrow's social problems. Either way, it is in business's best interest to give the next generation a look at what work is all about. To this end, corporate volunteers are heading into classrooms to talk about their jobs and mentor promising -- or even not-so- promising -- students. Companies such as Grand Metropolitan, Kroger, and Salomon Brothers are devising programs in conjunction with educators and parents that offer students job training, or at least job readiness. Maine and Oregon are creating apprenticeship programs for high school youngsters who are not bound for college. Moreover, educators are reconsidering the value of part-time work for kids as preparation for the jobs they'll eventually hold. Work does build character. Summer jobs and part-time employment during the school year help teenagers earn a lot more than money. Says Jeffrey Newman, executive director of the National Child Labor Committee in New York City: ''Work experience for most kids is a very good idea. It provides a glimpse into the real social world young people are moving toward and offers them a sense of identity and importance.'' Newman's strong convictions about the benefits of teenage work are particularly convincing since the NCLC, a private, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress in 1907, has always been a leader in the fight against exploiting child labor. Kids across the socioeconomic spectrum are not learning the qualities they'll need in the workplace: patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude. Aside from their teachers, the only working adults that children really get to know are their parents. But in some underclass families, no one works, and in certain neighborhoods some of the most visible adults are not engaged in legal occupations.

Even children of middle-class families are absorbing less and less about their parents' working lives. When exhausted dual-career couples get home late at night, they don't convene the family at the dinner table to tell stories of their day at the office. They go to sleep. As a result, when the Committee for Economic Development surveyed 408 employers last year, 78% faulted recent high school graduates for lacking ''a real sense of dedication to work'' or ''a real discipline in their work habits.'' If kids don't pick up these traits while still in school, they'll have a much harder time acquiring them later on. The federal government's attempt to train high school dropouts for employment under the Job Training Partnership Act has a decidedly mixed record. A recent study by WAVE Inc., a nonprofit training organization in Washington, D.C., that stands for Work, Achievement, Values, and Education, found that half the teenagers who landed jobs through its federally funded programs lost or left them within six months. Says Lawrence Brown Jr., WAVE's president: ''If you're dealing with people who are severely lacking in skills, it's unlikely that they'll last in those jobs unless they get continuing help.'' Whether they are on the edge of poverty or well-to-do, kids shouldn't -- and in most cases legally can't -- hold paying jobs before they are 14. Until then, parents should make sure they stick to babysitting, dog walking, newspaper delivery, or other tasks for the family and neighbors. STILL, 54 years after the milestone child labor laws were introduced, underage children continue to be exploited in the workplace. The NCLC estimates that 250,000 children are employed illegally on the nation's farms, where grammar school-age migrants harvest fruits and vegetables by hand. Meanwhile, sweatshops still abound in virtually every city with a high concentration of poor immigrants. Violations are particularly widespread in fields filled with small manufacturers and subcontractors, such as apparel, and also in meatpacking and restaurants. Since 1987 the New York State Apparel Industry Task Force has been raiding businesses and finding underage, underpaid kids crowded into dirty and often dangerous tenement workshops. The state's department of labor estimates that some 4,000 apparel firms in New York City's garment industry ignore child labor laws, but violators are fined only $1,000 per child for first-time offenses. For centuries European countries have had a way to link school and work -- apprenticeship programs. American education reformers, government officials, and business leaders are just catching on, but they seem to be making up for lost time. Last year Oregon passed a law that will create a statewide apprenticeship program by 1997 for high school students who don't plan to go on to college. At the end of tenth grade, students choose between a college-prep or a job-training track. After two more years, those in job training will receive a certificate showing they have mastered special technical job skills and are ready to join the work force. Kids who might have dropped out of a program geared to producing college freshmen are thus motivated to stay in high school long enough to prepare themselves to earn a living. By 1996, Maine will offer three-year apprenticeship programs in its 126 public high schools. During 11th and 12th grades, apprentices will spend 20 weeks of the year in school and 30 weeks working for $4.25 to $4.50 an hour, or around $5,000 a year. In the third year, after they have graduated from high school, apprentices will spend 34 weeks at work and 16 weeks at a technical college, tuition-free, earning a certificate of skill mastery. When it comes to telling kids about work, business should be a full and equal partner with the schools and the government. In fact, companies may find themselves the instigator of change. For example, Grand Metropolitan, the British food conglomerate, has committed $2 million so far to launch an elementary education program called Kapow, which stands for Kids and the Power of Work. In the school year just ended, 2,000 second-, fourth-, and sixth- graders took part at 11 schools. In September the program will expand to 4,000 students at 20 schools. Grand Met, hoping to create a large-scale national movement, eventually plans to invite any interested company to use the Kapow curriculum in cooperation with local schools. To aid in the planning of Kapow, Grand Met commissioned a Gallup poll of 907 fourth- to sixth-graders. Only 48% said they knew a lot about what their father did at work, and 57% said they knew a lot about what their mother did at work. In response to the poll results, Grand Met designed Kapow in cooperation with the NCLC and an advisory board of leading educators, including Samuel Sava, the head of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Volunteers from the British giant's U.S. operations, including Pillsbury, Burger King, and Haagen-Dazs, lead one-hour classes once a month at nearby elementary schools. Typical classes focus on helping kids develop positive work attitudes and habits, increasing their awareness of the spectrum of occupations, and getting them to understand the importance of teamwork. Volunteers have included secretaries, mail clerks, manufacturing line workers, a research scientist, and a vice president of marketing. A forklift operator explained to a class visiting his factory that although he liked his work, he was blocked from doing another job he really wanted because he didn't have the necessary math skills. The kids really got the message. Kapow pupils participate in hands-on projects lasting throughout the school year. Sixth-graders in Lowell Elementary School in Teaneck, New Jersey, invented new Haagen-Dazs flavors, such as ice cream with Skittles or other favorite candies mixed in. (Don't worry. The company had no intention of marketing the flavors.) The students had to trace the launch of a new product from start to finish, identifying the jobs that went into it and discussing functions such as quality assurance and marketing. Kroger Co., the supermarket chain based in Cincinnati, has partnerships with over 400 schools nationwide, mostly inner-city grade schools. Company volunteers at Washington Park Elementary in the impoverished Over-the-Rhine district four blocks from headquarters found the pupils were extraordinarily isolated: Some fourth-graders had never seen the Ohio River 12 blocks from their apartments, let alone been inside a factory or office. In 1990, Kroger turned a vacant classroom at Washington Park into a student- manned grocery store so pupils could learn firsthand about being managers, workers, and consumers. The company installed shelving, a checkout stand, and a cash register, and donated 400 items, from cereal to shampoo. Fifth- and six-graders run the grocery, supervised by Kroger volunteers and teachers. Pupils take delivery of products, stock the shelves, and run the checkout. Only Washington Park Elementary students can shop at the mini-Kroger, and each class has its own ten-minute time slot once a week. A student buys goods with up to $9 worth of points he has accumulated weekly through regular school attendance, appropriate classroom behavior, and good grades. Kroger requires that parents fill out and sign the kids' shopping lists in order to obtain the free groceries. Says Jack Partridge Jr., group vice president for corporate affairs: ''This is an invaluable mechanism for getting parents focused on how a child is performing in the classroom. And it gives the students a real sense of self-worth because now they are able to do something that is helpful to their families.'' SINCE 1989, Salomon Brothers, the investment banking firm, has been involved in a multipronged partnership with Paul Robeson High School for Business and Technology in Brooklyn. Some 73 of the firm's employees serve as one-on-one mentors for Robeson juniors and seniors. This summer the firm hired 15 interns from Robeson and offered 15 four-year college scholarships, with free PCs thrown in for the winners. For the students to make good use of the scholarships, Salomon put 80 of them through the Stanley Kaplan SAT preparation course and hired a professional college adviser for the top 20 seniors. The firm sets tough standards for its Robeson summer interns, who typically fill in for clerical workers on vacation. If the teenagers miss a day or two of work without an excuse, they lose their jobs. Students have also been booted from the mentor program for poor attendance at Saturday enrichment courses in college-prep subjects such as astronomy, math, and essay writing. Salomon and Robeson can point to some encouraging early results. Average SAT scores for Robeson students who took the Kaplan course increased 95 points. The selectivity of the colleges that admitted Robeson students, measured by the Barron's index of 1 (low) to 6 (high), has increased from 2.6 to 3.1. The cohort of kids attending college has increased a bit, from 69% of the graduating class to 73%. And 34% of the graduates go to colleges outside New York City. One of those is Dillonna Lewis, 18, a Caribbean immigrant who credits the mentoring she got from Linda Singer, 32, a Salomon relocation coordinator, with helping her get into Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she plans to major in psychology. THE LONGEST-RUNNING and largest partnership between business and the schools is Junior Achievement. Founded in 1919, JA reaches over 1.5 million students worldwide each year. Thanks to financial support from 24,000 companies, teachers can use JA programs at no cost to their schools. The elementary school curriculum teaches basic concepts of business and economics. At the high school level, students start their own small companies in after-school hours, guided by business people. Outside of business-sponsored programs at the schools, teenagers can learn a lot about the workplace simply by becoming a part of it. Forget what you've heard about McJobs as a bad omen for the American work force. Contrary to popular perception, many of the service sector jobs typically filled by teenagers are good learning experiences. Says the NCLC's Jeff Newman: ''Fast- food jobs are not dead-end jobs. They can be wonderful jobs. A 15- or 16- year-old at a Wendy's is growing in very important ways and learning what he or she can't get in school.'' Burger-flipping teens can develop a sense of responsibility and self- discipline from their toil. They discover how to support their co-workers, deal with bosses, and serve customers. During peak hours they have to stay cool under pressure. And at the end of the week, they can take pride in earning their paychecks. Lots of other jobs, such as bagging groceries or stocking shelves at a supermarket, can be valuable for teenagers, Newman says. He recommends that teens take jobs that put them in direct contact with the customer, such as working as a cashier or as a salesperson at a mall shop, because good customer service is so important in many of today's full-time jobs. In the best jobs, the company is committed to creating a learning experience for kids. Supervisors, for example, can use downtime to talk with teens about what's been happening at work, perhaps giving them pointers about how they might deal with tasks more effectively, rather than just assigning them to cleanup chores. McDonald's, which views itself as filling the military's traditional role of teaching values and discipline to young people, pays kids to study before or after their shifts. Burger King actually runs 18 private high schools, called Burger King Academies, where kids who were at risk of dropping out can earn their diplomas while working at the fast-food chain. But youngsters still need to know how to parlay those first jobs into something else. Says Larry Brown of WAVE: ''The day kids get on the job, I - want them to have strategies for how to hang on to their jobs and how to get the next job in that company. Mostly they need a positive attitude toward work and a willingness to learn.'' Three years ago WAVE designed a special curriculum for the ninth to 12th grades, with 600 lessons on topics ranging from teamwork and leadership to phone skills and job search. WAVE markets its program, called WAVE in Schools, to school districts, which share the $200-a-student cost with such businesses as American Express, RJR Nabisco, and Coca-Cola. About 250 high schools are involved, and pupils typically receive more than 125 hours a year of instruction. The lesson plans use creative teaching approaches to make the material relevant to what the student might experience in the workplace. For example, kids learn how to make decisions by acting out the roles of the ''delayer,'' who puts everything off, the ''pushover,'' who relies on others' opinions, the ''toss-of-the-coiner,'' who leaves it all up to fate, and the ''planner,'' who carefully weighs options and outcomes. Independent research by the Institute for Educational Leadership shows that the program has enhanced students' determination to stay in school. Math and reading levels improved on average by more than one grade level. Scores on self-esteem and job-readiness exams increased markedly. In September, WAVE will add ''Breaking Down the Boundaries,'' a new part of the curriculum that will bring corporate volunteers into schools to lead some classes. Although business and school partnerships require a financial commitment from the corporation, the real commitment comes from volunteers like Richard Targett, 32, a manager in Salomon's foreign-exchange department. Targett was a mentor to Robeson student Malcolm Lane IV, 16, advising him about college, finding physics tutors for the boy, playing math games with him, and just plain hanging out with him. This past spring Malcolm was voted the king of his prom, and he became the first high school graduate in his family. In the fall Malcolm will study engineering at City College of New York. Now when he walks through the neighborhood wearing a suit and tie, en route to his summer job at Salomon, friends say: ''You look like a basketball player. Where you going?'' And Malcolm responds: ''I'm going to success.''