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Schoolchildren in paid employment: a summary of research findings

Executive Summary

This paper summarises the state of knowledge surrounding New Zealand schoolchildren in employment to early 2010. It brings together formative publications from earlier in the decade, more recent published research findings and summary findings from analyses undertaken by the Department of Labour in late 2009 on a number of existing data sets (previously unanalysed for this purpose).

The report takes a principled approach to data presentation and analysis. It uses the most recent and credible data sets and research findings where the information on a particular issue is available. It does not seek to list every research finding on each of the priority domains identified, but where divergences in research findings emerge, these are documented and commented upon.

Key findings are organised across three main domains; employment participation (including participation rates, types of work and times of work), employment conditions (including employment agreements, pay rates and health and safety experiences) and impacts of extracurricular employment on education and employment outcomes. The paper concludes with a discussion focused on gaps in our knowledge base, identification of current research activities throughout New Zealand and identification of strategic priorities for further research.

Key findings


Participation in part-time employment is a common activity for many New Zealand schoolchildren, with around 40% of secondary school students working in regular part-time employment during the school term. Schoolchildren, particularly females, are increasingly likely to participate in regular paid part-time employment as they get older. Participation rates increase steadily from around a fifth for 11-year-olds (mainly boys) to more than half for 16 and 17 year olds (with a slightly higher proportion being female).

Students are primarily motivated to work to earn money, typically for spending on extra items for their personal use, while a smaller proportion of older students are saving for study-related reasons. While relatively few students are working to earn money for their families, students from higher deprivation areas and Pacific students are more likely than other groups to indicate that this is a motivation.

Students are participating in a range of roles, which vary substantially between males and females and change as schoolchildren get older. Younger students are most likely to be doing babysitting and cleaning (mainly females) and outdoors work like gardening and newspaper deliveries (mainly males). As secondary schoolchildren get older, they become increasingly likely to work in retail and hospitality.

Most secondary school students in regular part-time employment work a moderate number of hours each week. Two-thirds work less than 10 hours a week, while around 15%, mainly older students, work more than 15 hours a week. Most younger students (aged 14 and under) work less than 5 hours a week. Students typically work on 1-3 days per week, with more than half of those in work working Saturdays. Younger students are more likely to work during the week after school while older students are more likely to work evenings and weekends. Of concern, 6% of students are working more than 20 hours a week in their regular part-time jobs - a figure generally considered excessive and likely to impact negatively on subsequent educational outcomes.

Employment conditions

Secondary school students in employment have low levels of awareness surrounding their employment rights, low rates of union membership and a 50% likelihood of having a formal written employment agreement. Older students, typically working in larger organisations, are more likely to have formal written agreements, while younger employees, more likely working for family or friends of the family, are less likely to.

Lack of awareness of rights coupled with low union membership present heightened risks for schoolchildren who, by virtue of their youth and lack of experience in the workplace, may be more vulnerable to economic exploitation and injury than older workers. Many schoolchildren employees report trusting their employers to the extent that they will do work that they consider unsafe, while a small proportion will do an unsafe task because they are afraid they will lose their job if they do not. Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act (1992) employees have the right to refuse work they consider unsafe.

Injuries are a common and occasionally serious occurrence in school children's workplaces, with one-sixth of secondary school students in part-time work reportedly being injured at work in the past year. While half of these injuries appear to be relatively minor, around a fifth were severe enough to warrant a visit to a medical professional or hospital. Some industries are more prone to injury and harm than others. For example, construction, agriculture and hospitality appear to be particularly risky industries for school children.

While relatively few of the injured children blamed their employers for workplace accidents, it appears that employers are not effective in raising schoolchildren's awareness of hazards, nor their rights, in the workplace as expected under the Health and Safety in Employment Act (1992). One study found that a third of secondary school students indicated that their employers had not provided them with any information about workplace hazards. Inadequacies in training and supervision in their workplaces were also frequently reported.

With regards to pay, schoolchildren on the whole appear to be well or at least fairly paid. In 2007 one study found that three-quarters of secondary school children in work were being paid the youth minimum wage rate (for 16 and 17 year olds - set at 80% of the adult wage) or higher (at the time, $9.00 per hour). While half were receiving between the youth rate and the adult minimum wage hourly rate, a quarter were being paid at or above the adult minimum wage per hour.

Schoolchildren are increasingly likely to receive the minimum wage set for 16 and 17-year-olds as they get older, with just under half of 13 year olds, over half of 14 year olds and two thirds of 15-year-olds in one survey study receiving the minimum youth rate in 2007. Reflecting age-related rates of pay and hours worked, 13 to 14-year-olds are most likely to take home between $20-50 per week, while 15 to 17-year-olds are more likely to take home $50-100, with over a third of 16-year-olds and over 40% of 17-year-olds taking home more than $100 per week.

While most school children appear to be paid fairly for their services, nearly 10% of 16-year-olds and 5% of 17-year-olds in the above 2007 study reported earning less than the youth minimum wage, which was then, and remains now, illegal in the context of a formal employment relationship. Further, there is some indicative data suggesting that a small proportion (at around five to ten percent) of intermediate and secondary school students earn very low hourly rates or are not receiving any pay, which, while not illegal for under 16 year olds, or for 16 and 17 year olds working on the family farm for example, may be a further cause for concern. Due to methodological concerns surrounding these studies however, we are unable to determine the extent to which self reported rates of pay are inappropriately low.[1] This area has been identified as a priority for more robust research moving forward.

Impacts of extracurricular activity on education and employment outcomes

Echoing the international literature, New Zealand studies indicate that, when limited to a moderate number of hours, part-time employment during the school term does not have a negative impact on scholastic achievements or subsequent employment outcomes. Some studies find positive outcomes associated with employment. One study, linking survey data with NCEA outcomes (Meyer et al., 2009a), found that Year 10 and 11 students engaging in regular part-time work of up to 15 hours a week in 2008 achieved more NCEA credits than students who did not participate in any part-time employment. The data suggests that optimal levels for Year 10 and 11 students sit at less than ten hours per week (and likely as high as 6-10 hours per week), but any level of work appears to be better than none, up to the detected threshold of 15 hours per week.

Similarly, some participation in sport is associated with higher NCEA level achievement than none at all or too much, suggesting that caregivers may have a critical role to play in supporting and monitoring their children's out of school extracurricular activities.

[1] For example, the survey studies documenting low rates of pay for some schoolchildren did not specify 'work' was necessarily paid work and/or did not exclude voluntary work or chores around the home or family farm or business. Further confusion for children in the calculation and reporting of hourly rates may contribute to over-reporting of low pay rates.