Sixteen-year-old Cuán White is nervous about starting his first job in a New York-style pizza restaurant in Dublin city centre, but there is also great excitement about what it might mean for the long summer evenings ahead with his friends.
Cuán, who is from Phibsborough, started cooking when he was pretty young and has always had an interest in food. Both his uncles have pizza restaurants and it is in his family, he explains. So, looking for his first summer job in Bambino made perfect sense.
The main draw, he says, is having that sense of independence that comes with having your own money in your pocket, and not having to rely on parents to buy clothes or bankroll activities with friends.
“I’m probably going to save some of it for rainy-day money,” he says. “When I finish my Leaving Cert next year I might want to go on a holiday or go travelling by myself, so it would be nice to have a pool of money. I don’t have to pay rent or anything, so it will just be spending money really.”
Vincent Jennings, chief executive of the Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association, says “practically everybody” can remember their first pay packet and “what it did for them”.
“One of the things – if they haven’t learned it in school – is they can’t understand for the life of them why they are paying tax or USC, but that’s an important learning lesson as well,” he says, laughing.
Cuán has already completed a trial shift in Bambino and is expecting to get about three shifts per week at the restaurant. He says he is already reaping the rewards.
“When I got there, I met loads of people from different ethnicities, countries and age groups,” he says.
“Normally if I’m working on something with someone it is with a classmate at school, so it was a little bit weird working alongside people who are much older than me and full-on adults.
“I get along with the cashier there very well. She is in first year in college. I get along fine with the older people too but there is more of a connection with people who are closer to me in age.
“You go to school with people who are a similar age, demographic and life experience to you, so it’s interesting to see other people’s lives and experiences. There is a French guy working there and it is great to hear about his life and why he came to Ireland.”
Jennings says the opening of these doors will teach teenagers lifelong lessons.
“It is really important for youngsters to learn about work; to learn about taking direction; to learn about working in teams; to learn the value of work and what it takes to actually be a part of a business that needs to make a profit to pay them,” he says.
“They can be surprised by things as well, because in their own little cocoon of a highly regulated school or a well-ordered house, they may not realise just how difficult people can be.”
Indeed, there are plenty of challenges and learning curves to navigate for Cuán. “You are put into roles that carry responsibility – such as making a pizza – and you don’t want to mess up,” he says.
“Making the actual pizza is pretty hard. You don’t want the dough to rip; you don’t want to burn it; you don’t want to put too much cheese or sauce on it. Most of the rest of it is pretty easy, but I need to put the work into that and get good at it,” he says.
“I’m a little bit nervous because if I don’t get into the flow of things, I don’t want to make the boss or the customers unhappy or their lives any harder. I’m going in with an open mind but I will have to adapt and learn quickly.”
Martin McDonnell, owner of The Full Duck Cafe in Galway, tends to take on a number of first-timers each summer. The cafe is based in a residential area rather than in the city centre so it attracts lots of local young people looking for summer work.
“When you take on the local kids, they generally tend to know a lot of the customers,” he says. “A lot of their neighbours come in and out. They live close by and can get there quite quickly so they can come in and help us out if we are stuck at times.”
McDonnell says the benefits for people getting out of their houses and out in the real world at that age are priceless.
“We have one particular girl at the moment,” he says. “She is probably doing her Leaving Cert at the moment. I was chatting to her mother and she was saying it has just been an amazing experience for her.
“Prior to working in the cafe, she wouldn’t talk to anybody. She was very quiet and reserved. If they had visitors into the house she wouldn’t really communicate, and now she is full of chat. She really came out of herself.”
Adrian Cummins, chief executive of Restaurants Association of Ireland, says this type of story is not unusual.
“Those that go in as shy, young students will come out with an awful lot of confidence, and that is great to see. You have to talk to people and you have to develop your personality. It’s a great way to teach young people about time management, customer service and so on,” he says.
Jennings says there are “thousands of jobs” out there. “Any youngster looking for work will get a job this summer – no doubt about it – and they won’t have to look hard,” he says.
Similarly, Cummins insists there is “availability in every restaurant in Ireland” for staff at the moment.
“Everybody will do a stint in hospitality at some stage in their working lives. It’s the sector that young people migrate towards because they make friends; they earn money; and they start to develop life skills.
“When we see people heading off on their J1s to New York, Boston, Chicago – wherever – a lot of them will work in hospitality there, but we want them to stay in Ireland.”
Traditionally, shops and convenience stores have been a significant employer of young people, but Jennings says that is tightening up for a number of reasons, including legislative restrictions around minors selling alcohol and tobacco products.
On top of that, there are lots of competing interests, he says. “In rural Ireland, you have farmers who are always looking for assistance through the summer and for some youngsters that’s more exciting than standing behind the till.
“It’s looking up a little bit though. There are certainly more applications coming out this year for kids than there were in previous years.”