“The most underused, under-appreciated group of people in the world is our youth.”
If you were a teenager 50 years ago, there was plenty of work during the summer.
You could work in grain harvest, almond harvest, moving sprinkler pipe, cutting apricots, raking and baling hay, picking up hay in the fields and storing it in barns, cutting weeds, babysitting, yard work, feeding livestock, milking cows, and the list goes on…
This available work was a good opportunity for young people to earn some extra spending money for school clothes, gasoline for their car, putting some money in a bank account, or a little money to spend towards a date with dinner and a movie. In those days you didn’t need work permits, only a little ambition and motivation to go ask.
I remember one August, when I was about 16, I got hired by Giz Garrison, a local farmer to help knock almonds from the trees in his orchard. Many of you may remember days when the trees were knocked by hand with rubber-ended mallets; harvesters would basically beat a limb until all the nuts had come down. The nuts fell on to sheets of canvas that were then pulled into a low trailer, moving from tree to tree.
In August it was usually pretty warm and nothing makes you uncomfortable like almond dust mixed with sweat. Howard Garrison, my brother Jeff, and I were helping Giz knock this one large tree. I took a swing at a high limb just barely brushing it and the mallet came down and hit Giz in the forehead. We all watched in awe as he just stood there for a minute, eyes kind of rolling around in his head, and he then slowly sat down and leaned against the tree. After a few minutes and a couple swigs of water, he smiled and said, “Can you not miss the limb?” Frightened that he was really hurt, I apologized profusely. Needless to say, we took the rest of the afternoon off.
This was prior to Child Labor Laws and Cal OSHA. Regulations (based on good intentions) have choked youth employment opportunities down to almost nothing. Some of these laws make little sense in the mind of someone like myself who started driving tractors and trucks at the young age of 12 or 13 years old. Had those laws been in existence at that time, many of the farmers and business owners of my dad’s generation would have been in jail.
The rules were put in place to keep children safe from accidents and to prevent unscrupulous adults from taking advantage of young people. But maybe the pendulum has swung a little too far to the other side. Restrictions for hiring young people can often seem insurmountable.
Many of my employees have teenagers that would love the opportunity to work during the summer and vacations, but there is little opportunity available to youth. This summer, I decided to put a harvest crew together of high school juniors and seniors. People warned me against it:
"They are lazy."
"They will spend all their time looking at their phones."
"Their production will be low."
But remembering the advantages and experience I got working at that age, we went ahead and put together a crew of six youths to pick tomatoes and melons with one adult to supervise and transport fruit from the field to the pack house.
I do not regret this choice for one minute. They work well together, are on time every morning, and are receiving a paycheck for the first time in their lives. And work hours for them become a teaching moment for me - I encourage them to stay in school, go to college or trade school, and be a good human being.
When I compliment them on work done well, smiles of pride appear on their faces. It is rewarding the see them during their break time, sitting around the table eating fresh melon, deep in youth conversation.
Maybe in 30 years, one of them will sit down and write a story about working in the fields and what they learned from that experience. The memory will stay with them always, long after the money is gone.