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OpinionColumnistsChristopher Leelum

In summer, teens need to get heads out of books

A lifeguard keeps watch on opening day of

A lifeguard keeps watch on opening day of the newly renovated McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn. (June 28, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

As higher education has become a greater priority for young adults, teens are skipping summer jobs and immersing themselves in chemistry courses in July.

The problem is, teen years should not be focused solely on preparing for admission into the right college or graduate school, but also on gaining work experience and discovering your skills and interests. For some, finding summer employment is a hassle, but all this "College! College! College!" sentiment is taking away from the benefits of employment.

In past summers, I have worked in retail and I have been a lifeguard, both pretty boring positions that bore fruitful results. I learned first and foremost how to deal with people, especially being patient with the impolite ones. But I also absorbed the tidbits of employment that school can't always offer -- the dynamics of employer-employee relationships, the importance of first impressions with customers and the subtle grace of how parents hold on to their sanity while lugging around unruly offspring.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds last summer was 31.6 percent. This is barely higher than the low of 29.6 percent in 2010 and 2011. Teens are participating less, and this has been a trend for decades, with about a 45 percent employment rate in 2004 and 55 percent rate in 1994.

This parallels with the overall year-round youth employment decline nationwide, as factors like adults retaining entry-level positions keep kids out of the labor force. BLS statistics from early last year showed that of the about 11.6 million 16- to 19-year-olds not in the labor force, only about 8.3 percent said they wanted a job. This rate has been pretty much flat since 1994. But non-employment is not replaced by Netflix binges or beach days. That free time usually goes to more school.

BLS data regarding summer school enrollment show that in July of last year, the percentage of those aged 16 to 19 in summer school was 40.3 percent. Ten years ago, it was 37 percent, and 10 years before that it was 21.9 percent. Since at least 1985 (10.4 percent), there has been a steady increase in teens enrolled in summer school and a steady decline in those employed.

Many teens don't want to work in the summer because they are putting more stress on building their college resumes for future employers. All the while, they're missing the chance to learn people skills.

The national rhetoric nowadays is that a college degree is the best path to a successful life. Get the degree, get the job, pay the loans, live comfortably. If kids are focusing all of their juvenile efforts on the future, they're skipping the experiences to be gained along the way.

Eventually, for teens, the stuff they read in textbooks will be applied to reality, but it shouldn't be put off until the cap and gown come on. Experiencing life as soon as possible and all along the way means balancing school and work until you find the one path you'd like to pursue. That's what college should be for -- choosing one door and using all your experience to face whatever's on the other side.

Christopher Leelum, a student at Stony Brook University, is an intern at Newsday Opinion.