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When teens can’t find jobs elsewhere, parents do the hiring

Will Boynton is 17, lives in Newburyport, and put in dozens of applications for a summer job. He applied to nearby Water Country, to restaurants and stores. An amateur disc jockey, he looked all over for gigs.

Finally, he found a part-time job doing photography for a business website and playing music at the owner’s various events. He likes the work, and he loves his boss. She happens to be his mother.

“I’m able to help my mom and have a summer job at the same time, so it’s great,” Will says.

His mom, Kate McKay, adds: “With the economy being so tough, it’s been absolutely brutal for these kids looking for work.” Will’s 15-year-old brother, she said, applied, along with 55 others, for a job busing tables at a local restaurant. He didn’t get it.

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Summer jobs for teenagers have become a precious commodity, and some parents — desperate for their teenagers to have work — are stepping in to fill the void. Whether they are doing research or helping run a shop, more teenagers are landing summer jobs working for mom and dad, say those who watch employment trends.

With competition from recent college graduates and retirees, entry-level summer jobs are often beyond the reach of teenagers. In June of last year, just over 29 percent of teens had a full- or part-time job— compared with nearly 54 percent in June 1989, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This summer, labor specialists say, is similarly dismal.

There are no figures on how many teenagers are working for their parents, but Kathleen Barron, who owns Accurate Resource Group in Westborough, says she is seeing the phenomenon.

“It’s definitely a trend that parents will try to help their kids get work, including hiring them,” says Barron, who helps small businesses with hiring and human resources. “There’s more this summer because unemployment is so high in that age group.”

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Nancy Snyder, president and chief executive of the Commonwealth Corp., a quasi-state agency that develops summer jobs for youth in Massachusetts, says the arrangement makes sense. “Networks and families: that’s the way young people are finding jobs these days.”

It appears to be happening primarily among parents who are middle class or higher — and can afford to pay their teens to work for them, specialists note. Those youths who most need the work, in other words, have the most trouble finding it.

“There’s definitely a very high correlation between employment rates of teens and household income,” says Snyder. In families with incomes of less than $20,000, only about 24 percent of teens work summer jobs, whereas in families with incomes between $100,000 and $149,000, 45 percent of teens have jobs, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. “The job market is personal. It’s relationship-driven.”

John Murphy, 19, of Lexington just finished his freshman year at Norwich University in Vermont and sought a summer job, in vain. So he is working for his father, Phil Murphy, who co-owns A.M. Renovation Consulting in Malden. The company does inspections, cost estimates, and offers loan help for residential renovations. The elder Murphy wanted his son “up and out of the house” during the summer, and John, who doesn’t have a car, needed to earn money.

“I said, ‘John, you can ride with me and help me out with finding new technologies for the business,’ ” says Phil. “I’m 50 years old and not really up on the online stuff.”

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It is turning out to be one of the best decisions he has made.

“I sit there in amazement at what he can do,” says Murphy. “He’s been showing me how to drive more people to the website.” He pays his son $10 an hour, which he believes is an average rate for teenage summer help. And he admits to one special perk: He buys him lunch.

John has also made a spreadsheet with his father’s contacts and plans to re-shoot his dad’s videos and post them on the site.

“Not only has it been beneficial to the company, but on a personal level, I’ve gotten to enjoy it, which is a real bonus,” says Phil Murphy. “He’s happy, and I’m happy.”

For his part, John says he has a new appreciation for the work his father does. “I had no idea,” he says. “This summer, driving around with him starting at 6 in the morning — it’s crazy the amount of work he does. It’s just nice being able to spend time with my dad, too.”

Of course, having a parent as an employer can present problems, too. Specialists say the best outcomes occur when the parent/boss makes the rules clear to the child/employee beforehand, and sticks to them.

“There can be confusion around the parent being the boss, and there can be hurt feelings,” says Barron, who says she has seen both successful and unsuccessful cases. “It’s important to have clear expectations going into it.”

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The parent should talk about hours and set workplace guidelines, she says. It’s especially important that parents pay their teens the going rate.

“The kids need to be told that they will be treated as any employee, with no favoritism or special treatment. If things aren’t going well, they need to discuss it and remedy it like any other employee. They need to say they are in the boss role from 9 to 5, and then the parent role at home.”

Barron says the average summer rate for teens ranges from the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to $10 to $15 an hour, depending on the job and the hours. “Pay, time off, and any perks need to be consistent with what the rest of the summer help is getting,” she says.

Kate McKay, whose son Will works for her two businesses — a precious metals company called Gold Siena, and Too Big For Her Britches, which offers speaking and writing services — pays him $25 an hour. She says she would pay the same rate to a nonrelative doing the same work. “When it comes to technology, I’m a single mom, and I need a lot of support.”

Linda Sevier of Boylston has had her teenage son and daughter work in her Internet marketing company, Pagetender LLC.

“I was pretty clear with them that I was not mom at work,” she says. “They called me by my first name. I told them, ‘When you walk through that door, I’m Linda, not your mother. I’m the boss and you do whatever I tell you to do. And I will fire you if I need to.’ ” She didn’t need to.

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Keith and Linda Mills, who own Esprit du Vin, a wine and gourmet cheese shop in Milton, hired their daughter Chloe to help out this summer. Chloe, 17, had looked for jobs at the mall and at an ice cream shop, with no luck. She has an unpaid internship with a graphic design company in Boston and helps out at Esprit du Vin several hours a week.

While her father is in charge of the wine, Chloe works the cheese counter.“It’s a win-win situation,” says Keith Mills. “I take pride in knowing she’s learning about the family business and retail. I trust her completely.”

Mills knows he’s lucky he’s able to hire his daughter. “There’s a lot of negatives in owning a small business, but the good part is I control my own destiny, which gives me the ability to pick and choose who I want to work for me. I like the idea of paying a family member.” Mostly, Mills wanted Chloe to see firsthand the intricacies of running a small business, and to teach her additional responsibilities. “She’s developing more skills,” he says.

Chloe likes the work, likes the pay, and likes her employer. “He’s a fine boss,” she says, smiling at her father.


Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.