Skip to main content

Does High School Employment Develop Marketable Skills?


While decades of academic research have consistently demonstrated a positive relationship between high school employment and adult earnings, the literature is empirically silent in regards to why this association exists. This study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97) to examine the hypothesis that high school employment develops “marketable skills” in the form of occupation-specific human capital. By analyzing wage variation attributable to the commonality of skill portfolios across respondents’ high school and adult (age 20 and 23) occupations, this study fails to find consistent evidence that the types of skills utilized in high school employment are correlated with adult earnings. Within the framework of the human capital model, this would suggest that the positive, post-school economic gains of in-school work are largely attributable to increases in general human capital (e.g., workplace socialization, character building).

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Shaw (1984) defines an “occupation” as “a homogeneous skill classification within which individuals are perfect substitutes in demand and/or have infinite cross elasticities of substitution in supply. Cabinet-makers and engineers, for example, have occupation-specific skills,” (p. 320).

  2. Most occupational categories are based upon the first two digits of the relevant SOC codes. However, given the lack of observations in the “white-collar” occupational categories, these have all been collapsed into a singular “Professional and Management” classification for use in this study.

  3. This study favors this categorical approach over the use of specific occupation codes given that the latter method would ignore common promotions within a career track that typically accompany the move from student to adult employment.

  4. KSA “points” are defined as the product of O*NET’s importance and level score for each occupation in each of the 33 knowledge, 35 skill, and 52 ability categories. Pairwise occupational point comparisons are conducted in each category, with the minimum score representing the amount of each KSA that can be applied across both occupations. These “shared” point totals are then summed to produce overall knowledge, skill, and ability totals, which are then divided by the respective KSA totals of the in-school occupations. The resulting three ratios are then averaged to produce a one-number estimate of OSHC transferability. A full review of the methodology of this system can be found in Ormiston (2014).

  5. In regards to the incongruence between the 900 O*NET occupations the 508 utilized by the NSLY97, occupations are mapped one-to-one when available. Where more than one O*NET occupation is assigned to a relevant NSLY97 occupation, mean values of the O*NET scores are used. While imperfect, this approach was similarly employed by Hirsch (2005).

  6. OSHC transferability rates equal to one typically represent those who maintained the same occupation from one period to the next.

  7. NLSY97-calculated wage rates factor in the “reported pay, rate of pay time unit, and hours worked” and can “produce extremely low or extremely high pay rates.” While the elimination of those with wage rates below $2.00 and above $200.00 h may help, it is acknowledged that wage estimates may feature some uncertain amount of measurement error.

  8. This also excludes those who acquire a GED degree.


  • D’Amico R (1984) Does employment during high school impair academic progress? Sociol Educ 57:152–164

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DeSimone J (2006) Academic performance and part-time employment among high school seniors. Top Econ Anal Pol 6:1466

    Google Scholar 

  • Hirsch BT (2005) Why do part-time workers earn less? The role of worker and job skills. Ind Labor Relat Rev 58:525–551

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kambourov G, Manovskii I (2009a) Occupational specificity of human capital. Int Econ Rev 50(1):63–115

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kambourov G, Manovskii I (2009b) Occupational mobility and wage inequality. Rev Econ Stud 76(2):731–759

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lee C, Orazem PF (2010) High school employment, school performance and college entry. Econ Educ Rev 29:29–39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Light A (1999) High school employment, high school curriculum, and adult wages. Econ Educ Rev 18:291–309

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marsh HW (1991) Employment during high school: character building or a subversion of academic goals? Sociol Educ 64:172–189

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McNeal RB (1995) Extracurricular activities and high school dropouts. Sociol Educ 68:62–81

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McNeal RB (1997) Are students being pulled out of high school? The effect of adolescent employment on dropping out. Sociol Educ 70:206–220

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Meyer RH, Wise DA (1982) High school preparation and early labor force experience. In: Freeman RB, Wise DA (eds) The youth labor market problem: its nature, causes, and consequences. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp 277–341

    Google Scholar 

  • Mortimer JT, Finch MD (1986) The effects of part-time work on adolescent self-concept and achievement. In: Borman K, Reisman J (eds) Becoming a worker. Ablex, Norwood, pp 66–89

    Google Scholar 

  • Ormiston R (2007) Occupation and the human capital model. Unpublished Dissertation. Michigan State University

  • Ormiston R (2014) Worker displacement and occupation-specific human capital. Work Occup 41:350–384

  • Painter MA II (2010) Get a job and keep it! High school employment and adult wealth accumulation. Res Soc Stratif Mobil 28:233–249

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ruhm C (1997) Is high school employment consumption or investment? J Labor Econ 15:735–776

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schill WJ, McCartin R, Meyer K (1985) Youth employment: its relationship to academic and family variables. J Vocat Behav 26:155–163

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shaw KL (1984) A formulation of the earnings function using the concept of occupational investment. J Hum Resour 19:319–340

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stephenson SP (1981) In-school labor force status and adult wage rates of young men. Appl Econ 13:279–302

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stern D, Nakata Y (1989) Characteristics of high school students paid jobs and employment experience after graduation. In: Stern D, Eichorn D (eds) Adolescence and work: influences of social structures, labor markets, and culture. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, pp 189–234

    Google Scholar 

  • Warren JR, LePore PC, Mare RD (2000) Employment during high school: consequences for students’ grades in academic courses. Am Educ Res J 37:943–969

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Russell Ormiston.



Table 5 Regression analysis of high school employment on logged adult real hourly wage at Age 20 and 23

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ormiston, R. Does High School Employment Develop Marketable Skills?. J Labor Res 37, 53–68 (2016).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Occupation
  • Human capital
  • Skill development
  • School employment