When you ask high-school students in the City of Rochester about their priorities, landing a part-time job is right up there. And that doesn't surprise Glen Jeter, owner of the McDonald's on Upper Falls Boulevard near North Clinton, at all.
"Things are challenging in general for a lot of households when you live in a poverty area," he says. "They see lots of stuff on TV and they see things they want. But they also see that their family is struggling, so the only way they can help is by trying to be self-sufficient."
Jeter, a fast-talking, fast-moving entrepreneur, hires many city school students every year — so many that he says he's lost count.
"I've been doing this since I purchased the restaurant in 2002," he says. "And at any given time I have between 15 and 25 students working here."
Many have grown-up responsibilities, he says.
"A lot of them help their families and they pool their resources for food, child care for their siblings, paying bills, or basically feeding themselves so they're not a burden," Jeter says.
Most of the students are 16 or 17 years old when they come into the restaurant to apply for a job, he says, and it's usually their first work experience.
It's an experience that many students remember, he says, because he sets high standards. Education is the ladder to success, he tells his new hires, regardless of their ZIP code. And he says that he expects them to stay in school and graduate.
"Basically, I am a product of an urban environment in Buffalo, New York," Jeter says. "I had the opportunity to go to a public school, School 54, which was a very good school. It was instilled in me and my brother that we do well in school, that we have an opportunity, and that we must take advantage of it to be successful."
Jeter was brought up around the restaurant business. His parents owned restaurants and he started helping them, he says, by doing small jobs when he was 8 years old.
He says that most of the students he hires come with some basic skills, and sometimes job-readiness training that they may have acquired at school. But often they still require additional coaching, he says.
"What does it mean to you to be to be on time for work?" he says. "Smiling at a customer – what does that mean and why is it important? Some of them have personal challenges and they can be very, very shy, so they tend to look down. And they don't speak up. I have to encourage them and demonstrate it every single day here."
He often starts the day by asking them how they're feeling.
"I can tell them this is how you must smile and this is how you look at a customer in the eyes," Jeter says. "But you're not going to get any of that if they're hungry or they had a bad day prior to getting to work. Put them in front of a customer and it's not going to go well."
Some education research suggests that students who have a part-time job do better in school. Jeter says that he tries to retain as many students as he can despite fluctuations in business, and that he also makes sure they're doing well in school.
"As their employer, they don't have to explain anything to me about their personal life," he says. "But I'm not here to make anybody look bad. If they aren't [doing well], then usually we sit down and talk about the where-are-we-at issues."
But he never fires them, he says. He cuts their hours instead, he says, and tries to meet with the student and a parent. He says that he asks to see students' report cards, and that he examines everything from grades to attendance. He's rarely had a parent who isn't appreciative, he says.
"I don't want them here as bodies," Jeter says. "I want them here to grow and develop."
If the student is at risk of dropping out or has already dropped out, Jeter draws on the relationships he's built over the years with the Urban League of Rochester, Ibero-American Action League, Baden Street Settlement, and the city school district.
He says that he's usually able to help his student employees find the support they need to get back on track and graduate, if they're willing to do the work. Most, he says, are grateful for the help.
Occasionally, he has a young employee with a domestic problem, he says, which adversely impacts school and work.
"I make sure everyone knows that this is a safe zone," Jeter says. "If they're in trouble or they're afraid of being harmed, they know they can come here. We'll get the police involved if we have to."
But the biggest challenge that the students have, Jeter says, is developing a vision for their future and a plan for getting there. When he first purchased the restaurant, he says that he noticed that almost none of the kids who came in looking for work even mentioned going to college.
Now he has students he employed return to him for advice about college.
"A young black male called me yesterday because he wants to go to Niagara University," Jeter says. "He wants to become a nurse, but that's an expensive school. We talked about finances and budgeting. I wanted him to see that there's a big difference between graduating and owing $10,000 in debt verses $40,000."