With hopes of learning how to retain teens after graduation, leaders chatted with 50 high school juniors to hear their views about work and what might make them want to stay local.

Members of Forward Wayne County’s Employability Coalition spent time at all five public Wayne County high schools during this past year, talking with juniors about their relationship to work.

Those students were selected to participate in teen workforce chats based on aspects found in a typical employment setting, such as diversity, individual performance, education level, social skill and gender. Thirty-five of the 50 were already employed.

Each student was asked about their thoughts on work, what they need to be successful in a job, what employers need to know about working with young people and whether they want to stay here after graduation.

The cover of the Teen Workforce Report released by Forward Wayne County. Supplied

According to FWC’s new Teen Workforce Report issued at the end of June, only six of the 50 students plan to remain in Wayne County. The other 44 responded maybe (27) or no (17).

“These students were ready to talk about work, and what they said was eye-opening,” said Acacia St. John, FWC program director, in a news release. “We have some work to do to flip some of those 44 students to the yes side. We have work to do in promoting our employers, the amenities Wayne County has to offer and changing their impressions that there is nothing to do here.”

Some of the reasons students are opting to leave Wayne County include the lack of perceived opportunities, low wages and lack of entertainment opportunities for younger generations.

Students who answered “maybe” or “yes” said they might want to stay in the county because of its low cost of living, feeling of comfort and familiarity and closeness to family. Others noted that they would like to leave the area for college and might come back after their education.

When asked about what students need to be successful in work, many shared that a company’s culture is the most important factor when deciding where to work.

Participating students noted that they feel successful in a job that provides flexibility, respect and a patient environment for them to learn. They also shared that employers could help them become better workers through mentorship, good management and fairness.

When students are successful in a job, they build relationships and self-esteem, learn how to manage money, and hone their social skills.

However, many students noted that they feel like “work mules” — that employers are disrespectful, overwork them, and pay them less than other workers because they are high school students.

“Student workers are watching what employers say and do,” St. John said. “They will speak up for themselves and others. They shared that they are willing to put in the work, but they expect the same from the employer.”

At the beginning of each session, each group was asked to compile a list of their top “work values” — what they want to see in the company they work for.

Each school’s answers varied slightly, but the work values list had what St. John called surprising similarities.

The aggregated top five work values for Wayne County’s high school juniors are: respect, accountability, responsibility, commitment and fairness.

Students want employers (and everyone else) to know that they do have a work ethic. It was repeated at all five schools: “We are not lazy. We want to work, but work is not our life. We’ll put in the hours, but we also want to be teenagers.”

Eastern Indiana Works and Wayne County Foundation sponsored the teen workforce chats.

The Employability Coalition employer representatives from Belden, Indiana University East, Neighborhood Health Center, Primex Plastics and Reid Health provided swag for the students.

Teens’ work views at a glance

Summaries of the results from recent teen workforce chats at Wayne County’s five public high schools can be found at https://forwardwaynecounty.org/wp-content/uploads/Aggregate-Booklet-Final.pdf.

Some questions teens were asked include what they think about work, listing positives and negatives of having a job, where they get employment information, what employers need to know about working with young people and what teens need to be successful in a job.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Millicent Martin Emery is a reporter and editor for the Western Wayne News.