Shaping the Next Generation
WHEN SHE WAS 16, Ashley Gilfillan got her first job serving hot dogs at the Shawnee County Parks and Recreation pools and ball parks. Now, several years later, she still works for the county within walking distance from the concession stand, but she has not sold a hot dog in years.
Now an adult, Ashley is a full-time employee in the parks system, working as the recreation leader for professional services and development, after rising through the ranks since that first job selling concessions. Her career in the parks service, and the wisdom and life experience she brings to her position, would not have been possible if her employer had not been willing to hire a teenager.
While today’s youth have a reputation for being screen-obsessed and self centric, many Topeka businesses embrace the opportunity to give teens their first taste of the working world.
“They have to start somewhere, just like we did,” said Shelby Reutzel, operations manager at Eagle Auto Wash & Detailing Salon. “If no one gives you a chance—or a second chance—you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Eagle Auto Wash has about 10 teenagers on staff throughout the year. Most are line workers, who finish the cars by vacuuming, cleaning windows and waxing. If they show attention to detail, they can be promoted to shampooing cars.
The teenagers working for Eagle Auto Wash receive most of their training on-the-job, simply putting in the hours and learning to provide quality service. But a subtler lesson they have to learn, and one that the business emphasizes, is to always maintain a positive attitude, both with the customers and each other.
“Even if you’re having a rough day, or you’re hot and beat, just always be happy,” Reutzel tells his teen workers. “When you’re happy, it’s a great environment for everybody.”
Eagle Auto Wash’s biggest challenge with their teenage workers has nothing to do with smart phones. Instead, it’s accommodating their schedules, which are packed with school and extracurricular activities.
Reutzel solves the scheduling jigsaw by getting ahead of it. When teens first come on board, he asks them if they’re involved in sports or honors classes or other outside activities. Sometimes, accommodating their schedules means students, like 16-year-old Quinton Zwiesler, can only work two hours on a school day.
During the school year, Zwiesler starts work at 4 p.m. and leaves at 6 p.m. so he can get his homework and chores done. He says working on cars can be physically challenging at times, especially in the heat, but he really enjoys all aspects of the job.
“Tips are always nice, and the guys are really fun to be around,” Zwiesler said. He added that he also enjoys building a rapport with customers.”
“There are certain customers that, when I see their car coming down the line, it just makes me happy,” he said. “Knowing there are people who want you to do their car—it’s just a nice thing.”
Scheduling dilemmas for employers who hire teens are the norm rather than the exception. Kory Robinson, store director of the Topeka Hy-Vee, faces a similar scheduling quandary with the company’s teenage employees, but on a slightly larger scale. Out of the store’s 300 employees, approximately 30 percent are between 16 and 18.
“The frustrating part is, the times that we’re busy are the times that they need or want to be off,” Robinson said, referring to holidays as one example.’
Robinson tries to accommodate his teenage employees as much as possible and find a scheduling compromise. When a holiday is coming up, he asks teenagers if they can work the morning of that holiday, which many are willing to do.
Hy-Vee hires teenagers as young as 16 to work as courtesy clerks; they work on the front-end to bag groceries, help customers to their cars and do janitorial work.
Robinson says one of the biggest hurdles he finds when employing teenagers is that a lot of youth struggle with talking to customers at first. But because friendliness is such a key part of Hy-Vee’s culture, they learn to quickly adapt.
“You can just see that they’re uncomfortable when they start this job having to say, ‘Hey, how are you doing today?’ and ‘Did you find everything alright?’ and look somebody in the eye to smile,” Robinson said.
Building teenage employees up to the level of customer service excellence that Hy-Vee expects starts with building a strong culture.
“It starts with me and it goes down to my managers and goes into my department heads and my system managers,” Robinson said. “If I’m not smiling, and I’m not friendly, and I’m not talking to customers, and I’m not solving problems, why should anybody else have to?”
Peyton Chapman, a 16-year-old courtesy clerk, said it took him a couple of months to get comfortable chatting with customers. Now, he said it comes naturally.
If I’m in a good mood, I’ll talk a customer’s ear off,” Chapman said.
And the bad days? Fortunately, he does not have many of those.
“There’s not really a bad day at work because I like being here,” Chapman said. “I have friends here, so they usually cheer me up really quick.”
Like Chapman, 16-year-old Isaac Mulenga, a meat clerk, said it took some adjusting for him to become comfortable interacting with customers as he stocked his department — especially since he needs to maintain a fast pace to keep the shelves full.
After a month in, however, he learned how to get the job done, while also being friendly and answering customers’ questions.
Mulenga, who hopes to be a police officer one day, said he thinks his job at Hy-Vee will help him achieve that goal, both because of the people skills he’s building and because of the atmosphere of the store.
It’s a good positive job, and I can take that positive energy somewhere else,” Mulenga said.
For Robinson, rewarding positivity is a key part of developing his teen workers.
When someone does something extra special, Robinson makes a point out of praising them in front of others. Such was the case when an observing customer posted a picture on Facebook of a teenage courtesy clerk holding an umbrella over an elderly handicapped man while he walked the man to his car, getting himself soaked in the process.
After hearing about it, Robinson went up to the clerk on the floor and gave him a $1 per hour raise on the spot.
“More than ever in the job world, younger millennials and Generation Zs need reassurance that they are doing a great job,” Robinson said.
Along with receiving recognition and praise for a job well done, giving teens the freedom to try different roles can help them discover their niches. Gilfillan did not expect her concession stand job at Shawnee County Parks and Recreation to turn into a career, but each of her many jobs in the parks system over the years helped her discover what she wanted to do as a working adult.
“I loved slinging hot dogs at the ball fields,” she said. “There were a ton of people, some of them were not always pleasant, but I liked the sights, the sounds, the smells. You kind of get a vibe for what you really enjoy.”
Shawnee County Parks and Recreation hires 300 teenagers each summer in seasonal positions ranging from park maintenance to golf course maintenance, sports site supervisors, sports field maintenance, concessions employees, lifeguards, summer camp counselors and engineers who drive the Gage Park mini-train. So, there’s plenty of room for experimenting.
Helping teens find their niche is something Mike McLaughlin, communications and public information supervisor, hopes teens take away from their time at Shawnee County Parks and Recreation.
“You can see it in some of them,” McLaughin said. “There’s this one camp counselor who is always running around putting sunscreen on kids. You just see that maturity. And you think, ‘Yeah, this person’s found something they love.’
Because of the high amount of direct customer interaction, and in some positions, contact with children, hiring teenagers of good character is crucial to the parks system.
McLaughin said teens are often interviewed in groups. When he gets down to the final three or four candidates for a position, he gives them a scenario of something that has happened, or could happen, on the job and ask how they would handle that situation.
“It’s never failed to tell me which person was the best one for the position out of the candidate pool that I had,” he said.
McLaughin also abides by the concept of hiring for character and teaching for skills. Most teenagers do not have the job skills in place before they start a job, but the foundation of the character is already in place.
“Get the right person and they’ll learn,” McLaughin advises. “Look for a good attitude.”
A positive demeanor is key when things go wrong, as Grace Mlynek, the18-year-old manager of the Adventure Cove paddle boats, has experienced.
Like Gilfillan, Mlynek started out at the concession stands. In her fourth month, she was promoted to manager. She says she thinks her problem-solving skills were a factor in her promotion.
“I learned how to take the lead in solving problems without making them a big deal,” Mlynek said, recalling how she helped out when the stand ran out of hot dogs.
When a customer would order a hot dog, Mlynek jumped in to offer other options that would satisfy the customer and prevent the situation from escalating.
In her current position managing the paddle boats, Mlynek has more responsibility, including making sure safety rules are enforced, life preservers are worn and that employees are regularly rotated between indoor and outdoor stations to prevent overheating.
Mlynek is attending the University of Kansas, where she will study political science. She said she hopes the problem-solving and people skills she’s gained from working in the parks system will help her realize her aspirations to attend law school and, eventually, have a career in electoral politics.
Just as teens benefit from their employers’ willingness to give them a chance, businesses often find their younger employees defy the stereotypes that often falsely characterize them.
“I think there’s a lot of skepticism with this generation, just as there was with millennials, because they operate on a whole different wavelength,” Gilfillan said. “I don’t think that means their work ethic is any less, we just don’t communicate or speak the same language. If you just get to their character, other things can be taught.”