As we have noted before, hiring and managing young workers can be a frustrating experience for employer and employee alike (see INC., "The Trouble with Kids," January 1983). The problems generally start with the interview process, which is often abbreviated, poorly thought out, or inappropriate to the job at hand. Hired on the basis of a mutual misconception, the young worker winds up getting fired soon afterwards. The experience does nothing good for the youngster, and it may lie devastating to the company -- especially if the company is a small business with a small profit margin.

One group that is concerned about this situation is the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), a privately funded group formed in 1904 to fight abuses of young workers in the labor market Times change, however, and so do social causes. Nowadays, the committee works with employers to handle the problems associated with hiring young workers.

For the past year, the NCLC has sponsored a program called the Small Business Project, comprising six training modules around such themes as breaking in the new worker, establishing communication, and supervising women in nontraditional jobs. After a trial run in New York City, where 1,200 small businesses were given free use of the manuals, the project is now expanding into Hartford and Denver, two cities with large numbers of small businesses and demonstrated interest in disseminating these materials.

So, why, after years of focusing on the needs of employees, has the NCLC turned its attention to employers' concerns?

"We've spent the last 25 years supporting inner-city jobs programs," says NCLC executive director Jeffrey Newman, and it became obvious to us that it didn't matter what you did to prepare young people for work if you didn't provide the employers with the tools and incentives to hire them in the first place. Businesses won't hire young people simply out of community need. On the other hand, small business is where most of the new jobs are being generated. If young workers are perceived as trainable, they can become a business's most valued employees."

"Small businesses seldom have the resources, people or financial, to educate new workers, so they tend to be rather negative about the situation," adds Bill Seitz, executive director of the Neighborhood Cleaners Association, a trade group representing some 3,600 dry cleaners and launderers in nine eastern states. "Our members have used these manuals quite a bit, and the response has been very, very positive. We've tried something similar over the years, but nothing this structured or this sophisticated."

Newman is convinced his modules can help "tens of thousands" of smaller enterprises in the next few years. "It's not unlike the apprentice system of 100 years ago, which was the lifeblood of small business in America," he says. "Mold a young worker to your specific needs, and it's almost like bringing your own child into the organization. Better, even."