Young barista making coffee in high school co-op

High School Co-Op Could Build Life Skills and Local Workforce

If I had participated in my high school co-op, maybe I could’ve saved thousands in student loans.

Hear me out.

In 2011 I joined a team of traveling restaurant consultants. We visited a new restaurant in a new state and helped the owner get the doors open each week. Then we stayed for the first few days of business to help them on their feet.

On Friday, we went home and did it again the following Monday. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner.

Unfortunately, we run into the typical travel headaches. On one such delay with a new co-worker, we used the extra time to enjoy a beer and get to know each other a little, as the week doesn’t leave much time for chit chat.

We talked about college, and he said he studied sports medicine, which seemed odd. But then I remembered I went to school for criminal justice.

What happened?

Why do people work in fields completely unrelated to our studies?

In short, life happens.

But we aren’t alone, as 27% of college graduates work in a field unrelated to their degree.


Probably because society pressures young people into college even if they don’t know what they want to do.

Many people still believe that only college can bring success, except for sports figures, musicians, or actors.

But in reality, college isn’t for everyone, and everyone isn’t for college.

Why do we only have one avenue for success laid out for us in high school?

Could high school work cooperatives help kids avoid expensive degrees they don’t need and support the local job market?

What is a High School Co-Op?

A work cooperative, or co-op, is a program that allows eligible high school or college students to work during school hours for credit. Some programs even enable employers to pay their employees.

My high school had such an option, but few participated. It was like free lunch, it wasn’t popular, but it was there if you needed it.

Like free lunch, being in the co-op program wasn’t exactly something to brag about.

Kids knew if they wanted to fit in and go to a decent college, they would have to get the grades in high school. To waste time working at McDonald’s instead of an advanced math class could hurt their chances for admission.

And if those kids drove their parent’s cars and received an allowance, they didn’t need the peanuts that an hourly wage provides.

But many of my fellow students didn’t have college plans, and students and faculty didn’t have high hopes for everyone.

I know academic work is essential, but our teachers and counselors made it sound like our only options were going to college or being homeless.

Can’t we encourage students to hold off on school or skip it if they don’t need a degree?

If high schools and local restaurants combined real-world jobs and classwork, students would gain invaluable knowledge to take them to the next level, whether it’s college or not.

Perhaps creating a new high school co-op or modifying current programs could offer more opportunities to students on the fence about higher learning.

High School Co-Op Builds People Skills

We use “soft skills” to describe teamwork, communication, and patience.

But really, they’re people skills, and they’re in short supply.

I’ve worked with many clever people with complicated and technical jobs. Yet, their people skills are virtually non-existent.

As young people spend more time online, their face-to-face people skills diminish. With technology advancing so quickly, this know-how will continue to slip from our human toolkit.

While working in a fast-paced environment with team members and customers, young people can get an early start on their people skills in a new setting.

Group low five, illustrating teamwork in a high scool co-op
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


As a restaurant employee, you won’t last long if you don’t work well with others.

That reminds me of Mike, a guy I worked with years ago at a fast-casual diner. Mike was in his late twenties or early thirties, and he knew his job, but he was a terrible teammate.

Most likely, you’ve worked with him too.

You couldn’t ask Mike for a favor because he found it offensive.

As a result, the staff preferred to do extra work without Mike than ask him for help.

Student employees could learn to work as a team early with integrated leadership between a restaurant owner and high school.


Have you ever seen a 40-year-old yell and curse at a 16-year-old for forgetting the onions on his burger? I’ve been that kid many times.

Dude, I don’t make the order. I just hit the button. We’ll get you a new one.

It’s a typical customer complaint, sometimes due to the drive-thru operator missing something. But in my experience, the culprit is usually miscommunication among those prepping the order.

A restaurant environment, especially a busy one, provides constant challenges to improving communication.

Young people can learn how speaking directly while observing body language, attitude, and manners affect day-to-day operations and human interaction.

Many kids don’t learn manners at home or school, so they might find some in a high school co-op.

Especially if they rely on tips.

Problem Solving

In today’s remote world, people have the luxury of not responding to emails until they’re ready.

Don’t know the answer or need time to think about it? It’s perfectly reasonable to wait until the next day to reply.

When working with customers that want their order and want it now, the heat is on—no time to think about how to pose your response.

Creating stressful scenarios for young people in restaurants builds the skills to solve problems in relatively high-pressure scenarios. It’s not exactly Wall Street, but young people can be very timid in their first job. Understandably so.

But we all have to start somewhere.

Also, experienced servers and production workers know when it’s OK to bend or break the rules to make things right for customers.

It’s called proper discretion, and it’s an instrumental skill in any profession.

Allowing younger people to make decisions builds confidence.


You might be thinking, what leadership position would high school students have at a local pizza joint?

Probably none, unless you count the head busser.

But one doesn’t need to be a leader to learn about leadership.

The only hierarchy most kids know is the one at home and the one at school. Or maybe World of Warcraft.

While working in a restaurant, student employees get a new perspective. Here they get variety, especially if the place of business has several levels of management, such as area managers, owners, or shift supervisors.

Employees learn about different leadership styles, such as identifying what a good leader looks like. Are they fair? Do they know how to acknowledge their teams?

When I worked in the local diner in high school, some managers were 10-15 years older than me. Some I respected, others not so much. I learned at an early age that just because someone was in a leadership position, it didn’t mean they deserved to be.

Work Ethic

Restaurant work has a unique set of challenges. A big one is a high-paced environment, and constant attention pulls between managers, team members, and customers.

Not only is there a lot going on, but you’re dealing with food. Many people are picky and rude and aren’t afraid to make a server’s life more complicated if their experience slightly improves.

It’s not easy work, and some people aren’t cut out for it. But those that have the chops, and can do it well, can hone a strong work ethic. They can also observe the wide range of willingness for others to do, or not do, their jobs well.

Who stays late if needed? Who covers shifts when they can?

Nobody likes an over-achiever seeking to please the boss, but we don’t care for lazy people either.

Learning to carve a spot in the middle is good practice for any future job.

Customer Service

If you’ve ever waited tables during a busy shift, you know the relief that comes with a table of customers with restaurant experience.

They know what it’s like, so they’re more patient. They even make the server’s life easier by organizing the table for easy busing.

That doesn’t mean it’s OK to take advantage of these restaurant veterans, but it bridges a gap with otherwise stubborn customers that expect the moon.

This misconception that “the customer is always right” is outdated and wrong. Of course, any business establishment must provide good service, but people have an obligation not to be demanding and unreasonable.

People that haven’t worked in any form of food service won’t truly understand how rude average people are.

Getting early experience helps form an understanding of customer service that goes on to help in any future job.

Because there’s always a customer in the equation somewhere.

Learning how to deal with customers at a young age builds a skill to defuse situations, find solutions, and encourage customers to return.

High School Co-Op Builds Money Skills

Math is important, of course, but what if math class incorporated real paychecks from co-op jobs to teach young people the fundamentals of financial responsibility?

I know, that’s crazy talk.

Few students use geometry in their professional lives, but we can all use a few tips on managing money.

A high school co-op program that integrated actual income to teach the value of money, savings, and taxes could work wonders.

As Americans have a collective $807 billion in credit card debt, it’s clear we aren’t teaching our kids how to be financially stable.

Man stressing over taxes, we could learn more in a high school co-op
Photo by Dziana Hasanbekava from Pexels


In high school co-ops, student employees can receive payment for their time. If so, they can establish a sense of value as workforce members.

Young people love getting that first paycheck and could find a surprise when they open it. They may feel like the time they spend flipping burgers isn’t fairly compensated.

Is it fair trade? What can you do about it?

Are you working harder for the same wages as lazy people?

Are there any planned raises? What incentives are there to move up? Any bonus options?

A high school cooperative can give kids a baseline expectation of their value as employees and find ways to improve it.


A primary reason it’s easy to waste money is that it’s no longer tangible. Some say if you use cash instead of credit or debit, you’ll spend less money since you see the money leaving your possession.

But whether we earn paper money or electronic credits, we must learn how to manage a budget early. Before we dig a hole of debt we can’t crawl out of.

Modern kids should have no problem using bank and financial management applications like Intuit Mint.

Although you must be 18 to open a bank account, minors can still take advantage of joint accounts with their parents.

Part-time work pay is minimal, and there are few bills at that age, but again, we have to start somewhere.

Integrating real-world budgets into the classroom gets a much-needed head start on balancing incoming vs. outgoing money.

Could we include this in a standard business math class? Or maybe we could create a new course entirely. Either way, judging by the overwhelming debt in this country, we need to fit it in somewhere.


We all pay taxes, yet like budgeting, we learn nothing about it in high school, even though many students pay taxes in part-time jobs outside of co-op programs.

Again, most people today use an online service or have others do taxes, but it’s good for students to learn about this process early.

Students can learn about basic taxes, but they can also form their own opinions.

Many students form an opinion on the concept of taxes but may change their tune when they see how much the government takes from their paycheck.

Tax forms
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

High School Co-Op for the Real World

One thing that public school does well is teach kids about social hierarchy, but so does prison.

Unfortunately, some kids learn hard lessons, and some don’t get over it for a long time. Maybe never.

Kids establish themselves on the playground, and their social status varies as they move into middle and high schools.

But many find it hard to understand that high school isn’t life, and none of it will matter in a few years.

It’s easy to say as an adult now, but it’s true.

Suppose students aren’t getting a second perspective through extracurricular activities or a job. They could have trouble making long-term decisions if trapped in a social bubble created by school and home life.

Like schools, restaurants are mini societies where young adults can network with people from different walks of life.

I worked in several restaurants during my high school years, where I met people from all over the world, believe it or not. The city had a diverse population since it was home to a large state university.

Many employees were younger people working after school, like myself, but we had quite a variety of staff. Some people worked part-time to supplement their income, and others worked full-time as their career.

Some only worked out of boredom during retirement.

Then there were those struggling. Maybe on parole, work release, or living below the poverty line.

After getting to know people outside their peer group, student workers get a first-hand look into other worlds. Not everyone comes from the same place, and they’re all on different tracks in life.

This variety of interactions extends to the customers as well. Families come in dressed differently, and some spend more time looking at the prices than the available food items.

A young person might go through the drive-thru in their Bugatti for a milkshake to cure their munchies.

Behind them, a family of five in an Astrovan might pay for dinner with coupons.

Spending a few hours outside the regular school and home settings with people in other peer groups allows young people to see the mixed bag that makes up society.

Work Isn’t Fair

In every high school, the kids have their politics. But young people would be wise to learn that the same thing happens in the workplace.

People make up the workplace, and people are immature and unfair. You have it in high school, and you’ll continue to experience it for the rest of your life.

Some high school kids may have a false expectation that once school is over and they enter the real world, everyone acts like an adult, and if you work hard, you’ll receive fair compensation.

That is an incorrect assumption, I’ve found.

Anyone who has had a job knows the right people aren’t always in charge. The workplace has no shortage of favoritism, harassment, and general incompetence, and poor-performing employees receive promotions while managers overlook good employees.

The earlier young people learn this, the better they can prepare for future jobs.

High School Co-Op in Practice

If you haven’t heard of a work cooperative program in high school, you might wonder if anything like this is in use.

Maybe not to the degree I proposed, but in 2015 an Illinois high school teamed up with a local pizzeria to offer students a new learning opportunity.

Nick Sarillo, the owner of Nicks Pizza and Pub, who operates two locations in the Chicagoland area, created his training program for local high school students, dubbed “Nick’s University.”

The program allowed qualifying high school seniors to work part-time to get real-world experience from a real business and a successful entrepreneur.

In a Forbes article, Nick explains that he spends the initial days focusing on core team values before getting into the specifics of running the pizzeria.

That’s an investment many owners wouldn’t make as they see high turnover rates among younger employees.

But according to the article, Nick trusts that most kids will get on the right track given the opportunity.

Maybe turnover is so high because employers don’t properly invest in their teams.

Today, Nick Sarillo turned Nicks University into its own consulting company. At the Trust and Track Institute, Sarillo and his son, Nick Jr., advise that you don’t need to run a global conglomerate to be valued and successful.

College Work Co-Op

Seemingly more popular are college cooperatives. But they work differently.

For example, at the University of Illinois College of Engineering, students switch between work and school by the semester. Students might enroll in classes in the fall, then work for a designated company related to their field for the spring.

Having extended experience is an excellent way to network and secure future employment as the vast experience sticks out to hiring managers. With the knowledge and networking, it makes sense that students increase their chances of working full-time in their co-op job.

But the downside to college cooperatives is that students delay their graduation date and interrupt the school year momentum. Although so many graduates have trouble finding jobs due to lack of experience, the extra time could pay off.

A big complaint among fresh graduates is that every interesting position requires experience, something young diploma holders don’t typically have.

Unless they participated in a co-op.

Those who do can graduate with already two years of practice in a given field.

Developer working on code
Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Why Isn’t High School Co-Op More Popular?

It sounds like students could learn a lot from work cooperatives, so why isn’t it more popular?

We’ve become so accustomed to the school-to-college-to-work timeline that it’s easier to silo everyone into it rather than tailor the school curriculum for multiple paths.

We believe that college degrees hold power to success, so students go to college even if they aren’t sure they need to.

With more encouragement to go to work rather than school, young people may naturally gravitate to what interests them without the pressure of graduating at 22.

Another reason we may not see high school co-ops in practice is the accountability and liability from both schools and employers.

Schools may not want to track students around town and determine where they should be. Of course, with smartphones, this would be much easier these days.

Again, some restaurant owners traditionally may not want many high school kids for fear the time spent training them won’t pay off when they quit relatively soon.

But with today’s labor shortage, I think more owners would be willing to try it.

Future Plans

But regardless of the unemployment situation, kids will only do what we influence them to do. And if we tell them that only college equals success, we’ll continue to find more people with degrees they don’t need or feel alienated if they aren’t on track for higher learning.

So, could I have saved thousands in student loans if I participated in my high school co-op? I think so.

Although I’m familiar with the Butterfly Effect, I think so, so who knows.

I’m happy I gained the experience of working in local restaurants, even if I didn’t get school credit.

It’s been invaluable.

If you could go back or you’re in high school now, would you take advantage of a work co-op program if it was available?

Would you consider working with local high schools on a new co-op program if you own a restaurant?

Maybe we won’t see a shift in college attitudes in the public school system any time soon.

But as new parents think about their children’s future while still paying student loans, the belief that college holds the key to success will diminish.


Hi, I'm Greg. The pen IS mightier than the sword!