The best and worst summer jobs.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 23 2003 12:53 PM

Summer Lovin'

A teenager's guide to the steamiest—and easiest—summer jobs.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The summer after I finished ninth grade, I spent three days a week organizing PowerPoint presentations for the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Distance Education Division. I didn't get paid, my help wasn't all that needed, and the slide shows were way too specialized for me to learn much more than the definition of the word "cohort." Still, my parents were elated: Instead of lazily wasting my summer days watching MTV or reading or hanging out at the pool, I was being "productive," gaining ever-invaluable "work experience."

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Did I really need a summer job? I was 15, my family was financially stable, I didn't want to buy a car or a new television or a video-game system. What I did want was to enjoy my youth until responsibility beckoned. But my parents vigorously believed I needed to learn responsibility, I needed to get out of the house, yada yada yada yada …

This parent-child friction is not a bizarre idiosyncrasy of the Zenilman family. It is a hallmark of middle-class America. And as a result young teenagers are routinely denied the joy of doing nothing for six weeks.

I would like to say this is a bad thing. I want to go on a sanctimonious, immature rant about how the summer-job obsession is just a manifestation of middle-class parents' guilt about spoiling their children; I want to indict mothers and fathers for using work as a ploy to get us out of their houses. I'm even willing to take the implied position of a New York Times article that appeared on July 14 and argue that middle-class teens are taking jobs needed by the less-fortunate members of their communities. Indeed, the code of adolescent laziness nearly demands that I try to prove these points.

But ... I can't quite bring myself to make this argument with conviction. We may have to grudgingly concede that our parents are right. There's something to be said for having responsibilities that go beyond due dates and trying to respect your siblings.

However, lazy youth of America, there is still hope! A summer job need not suck. Just listen to my advice. At the behest of Slate, I have compiled and judged the most popular summer jobs available to high-school students. Every single one of these jobs is attainable; you don't need work experience or parental connections or a high-school diploma to get it. I've evaluated the jobs according to the factors that matter most to Generation Y: wages, availability, and last but not least, the hook-up factor. If you think that publishing a summer job guide in July is a bit behind the curve, then you're looking at it the wrong way. I've given you a head start for next summer.

Food  Service

Job: Burger flipper/Cappuccino maker/Burrito roller.
They say you learn how to: Be part of a team, flip burgers, etc.
You really learn how to: Mindlessly obey corporate dogma and/or spit in other people's food.
Upside: Free chalupas!
Downside: To quote Fast Food Nation: "There is sh*t in the meat."
Wages: $5.50-$8 per hour.
Minimum age: 14 (although most places start at 16).
How do I get this job? Spend a Sunday in May at a food court or rest stop filling out all the applications.
Hook-up factor: Very low. Cheap, garish visors do not qualify as a turn-on.

Job: Supermarket worker bee.
They say you learn how to: Bag groceries, stock shelves, work a cash register.
You really learn how to: Drive motorized wheelchair shopping carts.
Upside: Air-conditioning 24/seven and the fact that the job requires absolutely no thinking or effort.
Downside: No time to sit down and the fact that the job requires absolutely no thinking or effort.
Wages: $6-$10 per hour.
Minimum age: 14 (for baggers), 16 (for everyone else).
How do I get this job? Start nagging your local supermarkets and drug stores … in March.
Hook-up factor: Low. There are two problems: a) Writing your phone number on grocery-store receipts is a bit too cheesy for most to pull off; and b) if you're a bagger, the only people you'd have time to flirt with are the people who are buying lots of groceries, i.e., moms (and dads!) with minivans and toddlers.

Job: Busboy, waiter, or hostess at a mid-priced restaurant.
They say you learn how to: Interact with people, read a wine list, serve food.
You really learn how to: Make "house dressing" out of mayonnaise and assorted other condiments, furtively sweep up shards of the plate you dropped.
Upside: Surely TGI Friday's doesn't need all that beer on tap. …
Downside: You have to choose between day shifts (when no one comes in and you get no tips) and night shifts (where you'll miss out on your prime chances for sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll while hanging out with your friends).
Wages: Hostesses make between $6.50 and $10 per hour; waiters are tip-dependent—a night shift can garner anywhere from $50 to $120. Day shifts are less lucrative. Busboys usually make less than the waiters, unless they are working the bar, where you sometimes get a portion of the bartender's tips.
Minimum age: 14. But at most restaurants you need to be at least 16 to be a waiter or hostess.
How do I get this job? Something called the Yellow Pages and the ability to lie brazenly about past experience in "the business."
Hook-up factor: High if you're a hostess or waitress wearing a tight shirt. Moderate if you're a waiter with a modicum of charm. Low if you're a 15-year-old busboy who has to wear a goofy Hawaiian shirt. ... Trust me, I know from experience.

Fun in the Sun

Job: Lifeguard.
They say you learn how to: Give CPR, save lives.
You really learn how to: Use sunglasses to cover up the fact that you're sleeping on the job, and, if you're physically gifted, make skimming the pool look like it's an enviable task.
Upside: Skin! Skin! Skin!
Downside: Sunburn! Sunburn! Sunburn!
Wages:  $6.50-$9. 
Minimum age: 15.
How do I get this job? Take a certification course during the winter at your local YMCA or JCC. Then start calling country clubs, apartment complexes, and summer camps.
Hook-up factor: Moderate. It all depends on where you work. Big neighborhood or country-club pools can be a bonanza for your libido (or so I've heard). On the other hand, if you pick the wrong place—say, the YMCA—you'll be subject to a daily visual diet of only the very young (taking swimming lessons) and the very old (doing water aerobics).

Job: Day-camp counselor.
They say you learn how to: Work with kids, lead a group with confidence, teach useful skills, mediate petty squabbles.
You really learn how to: Transfer important responsibilities to your co-counselors, explain to 8-year-old girls that they've got no chance with the dreamy 18-year-old camp crafts instructor.
Upside: When you're not looking after your kids, you can chill with other teenagers.
Downside: You always have to look after your kids.
Wages: Anywhere from $600 to $3,000 for 8 weeks of work.
Minimum age: Generally speaking, you need to be an incoming sophomore or junior in high school.
How do I get this job? In March, check with local private schools, community organizations, and religious groups about when their camp starts. If you call early enough (or have a connection), a job is pretty easy to get.
Hook-up factor: Moderate to high. No one will be impressed by your job, but you do spend all of your days in the sun with other hot, sweaty, bored teenagers.

Job: Sleepaway-camp counselor.
They say you learn how to: Plan activities, act as a surrogate parent for children, deal with homesickness, be responsible for others.
You really learn how to: Haze 11-year-olds while remaining within the moral boundaries of civilized society; read Penthouse letters; force that smelly home-schooled kid into the shower on the eve of visitors' day.
Upside: No parents, no curfews, co-workers who live with you (some of whom are over the age of 21).
Downside: You're responsible for 10-15 kids for nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week; getting caught taking advantage of your elder co-workers' ability to buy beer.
Wages: $600 to $2,000 for 10 weeks, plus room and board. Junior counselors and counselors-in-training—"CITs"—sometimes receive just room and board, not an actual salary.
Minimum age: 16 to be a junior counselor or CIT, 17 to be a real counselor.
How do I get this job? This is a tough one. The best way to get one of these jobs is to go to a summer camp until you're old enough to be a counselor (which also involves kissing up to/making nice with the powers-that-be). However, these camps are usually quite expensive; an alternative might involve finding a wealthy friend who has attended one and is willing to give you a recommendation. If that fails, get out the Yellow Pages in January and dial up as many camps as possible. It often helps to have a European accent and dark Mediterranean features. A couple of years ago I was entertaining the fantasy of being a waiter at very posh, all-girls camp … then I found out I had no chance unless my name was André, Enriqué, or Jean-Paul.
Hook-up factor: Very high. Up to 10 weeks with no parental oversight, other teenagers (and young adults) living in close quarters, the occasional night off, and there's always skinny-dipping in the lake. Note to parents: This is the case even at camps that are religiously stringent. If the camp is not co-ed, it merely means that any inter-camp mixing will be quite … intense, or there will be a certain amount of what people like to call "homo-social bonding."

Air Conditioning

Job: Telemarketer.
They say you learn how to: Telemarket.
You really learn how to: Annoy the hell out of people in a professional manner.
Upside: Nice desk, your own phone, flexible hours, relatively high pay, and little stress. Downside: You're a telemarketer.
Wages: $9-$15 per hour, plus commissions.
Minimum age: Some places will hire students as young as 14, although 16 and 18 is much more common.
How do I get this job? Check want ads in free employment newspaper. The phone book is also a decent resource; however, it would be quicker to find people a couple years older than you who have telemarketed before and can give you leads. 
Hook-up factor: Low. No one likes telemarketers. Plus, "Would you like to refinance your mortgage?" does not qualify as a pick-up line.

Job: Worker bee at a quaint guitar-repair center, thrift store, second-hand book shop, etc.
They say you learn how to: Manage a small business, other assorted skills.
You really learn how to: Sit in a corner and read, other assorted skills.
Upside: Peace, quiet, and quirkiness.
Downside: There is such a thing as too much peace, quiet, and quirkiness. Think of Canada.
Wages: $6-$9 per hour.
Minimum age: 14.
How do I get this job? Wander around stores until you hit the jackpot, or work the phones for a couple of hours. 
Hook-up factor: Low. Even if you're cute, these places usually have low traffic. However, if you manage to obtain a significant other over the summer, your work days will be rife with opportunities for a little bit of backroom derring-do.

Job: Sales assistant at a music or book mega-store.
They say you learn how to: Interact with customers, maximize product placement, get acquainted with shipping software.
You really learn how to: Get depressed by the fact that so many people are buying Avril Lavigne albums at full price.
Upside: Shelves of books, shelves of music.
Downside: Suburbanites who think they're literary now that there's a Barnes & Noble with a cappuccino bar near their McMansions enclave; the old lady who repeatedly comes to the store to ask if her favorite novel is still out of print.
Wages: $7-$10 per hour.
Minimum age: 16.
How do I get this job? Fill out applications and cross your fingers. Do not mention your love of alt-rock in the interview; do look the part of fresh-faced suburbanite by wearing Banana Republic (or Gap or J. Crew or Abercrombie & Fitch or …)
Hook-up factor: Moderate. Helpfulness, charm, and a little nerdiness might catch the eye of like-minded bookworms or record-heads. If you have a thing for mall rats, you can always check the in-store cafe after your shift ends.

A Hard Day's Work

Job: Construction worker.
They say you learn how to: Build stuff.
You really learn how to: Look manly.
Upside: Power tools and dangerous machinery.
Downside: Power tools and dangerous machinery.
Wages: $8-$13 per hour.
Minimum age: 16, although it's usually 18.
How do I get this job? Phone book, or by pestering the guys who are fixing up your school.
Hook-up factor: High. The combination of rugged work, taut muscles, tight-fitting undershirts, a tan, and really cool lunchboxes can elicit the kind of lust that trumps sexual orientation.

Job: Landscaper/groundskeeper
They say you learn how to: Maintain grass, trim hedges, repair fences.
You really learn how to: Play poker on lunch breaks, and drive a tractor.
Upside: Lawnmower fights!
Downside: Muddy fields, the possibility of literally getting a 'redneck,' grass rash.
Wages: $7-$10.
Minimum age: 16, although some places will hire 14-year-olds.
How do I get this job? Local park services often hire summer help. Also, keep a lookout for want ads.
Hook-up factor: High for females, low for males. Even for those of us who aren't denizens of NASCAR nation, there's a certain allure to tractor-driving women. On the other hand, there's not much of a market for guys who smell like fertilizer.

The Most Kick-Ass Job in the Whole Entire World

Job: The Scott Shuger summer internship at Slate's Washington, D.C., bureau.

They say you learn how to: Help put together a magazine, fact-check, copyedit, use snarky prose to question conventional wisdom.

You really learn how to: Pre-empt the line at the burrito shack down the block.

Upside: Seeing your name in print, lots of free Slate umbrellas, your own empty-cup-laden messy cubicle, casual Fridays (and Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays ...). Did I mention seeing your name in print?

Downside: People in the Fray will alternate between deriding you as a dirty imperialist fascist and a smarmy commie-pinko. Your family will automatically equate "online magazine" with Pets.com and wonder why you didn't get a real job. Your computer will never work. Clueless classmates will ask if you like working at Salon.com. And your computer will still not work.

Wages: About $4,000 for the summer, minus food and transportation expenses.

Minimum age: Must be finished with high school.

How do I get this job? First, you must vanquish me. Then, next January or February, send an e-mail to Plotzd@slate.com inquiring about the internship. You'll probably have to send a résumé and a writing sample, and then hope for my demise. See this slightly outdated "Explainer" for more information.

Hook-up factor: Single, unshaven adolescent male seeks wonkish and statuesque Jewish (or Asian-American) female. Must enjoy policy analysis, literary journalism, high-minded pretensions, and rap music.

Avi Zenilman is a former Slate intern.

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