While most teens working across the country this summer were making minimum wage flipping burgers, Silicon Valley teen-ager Roddy Knight was writing computer code for $20 an hour—plus stock options.

“This is fascinating work,” said Knight. “I’m learning so much, and they give me a lot of responsibility.”

Knight is one of a growing cadre of students who can boast of honing their marketable skills—and earning lucrative wages—when they write their “How I spent my summer vacation” essays this fall. With the demand for information technology (IT) workers at an all-time high, tech-savvy teens have a unique opportunity to step into positions that are usually reserved for their older peers.

Working at Keynote Systems in San Mateo, Calif., Knight’s first project was to write a computer program that will help eCommerce companies test their web sites.

“He may be a kid, but he’s got a lot of skills,” said Keynote’s chief executive, Umang Gupta. “Our attitude is really simple: We pay based on performance, not age or other factors.”

That attitude, prevalent among high-tech employers, has paid off for teens. Low national unemployment is magnified in high-tech areas, where the booming IT industry has created a vast shortage of trained computer programmers.

“If you can program, you can program. It doesn’t matter how old you are; there’s going to be a job,” said Rich Halberg, of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, a nonprofit community and business group. “I think many of these kids are going to find it hard to go back to school.”

A recent Joint Venture study about the work-force shortage, for example, found that 160,000 high-tech positions—roughly one-third of the high-tech industry demand in Silicon Valley—are filled by recruits from outside the region, by long-distance commuters, or they go unfilled.

Nationally, unemployment for all workers is also low, and jobless rates for teen-agers and adult women fell to the lowest levels in three decades.

“It could be said that I’m like the ordinary summer teen-ager, except that I work while others vegetate,” said Darrick Wong, 17, of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Wong worked this summer as a webmaster at VIT, a Palo Alto, Calif., company, where he built web sites, rewrote his own programs and, in his spare time, studied to get certified in computer programming from Sun Microsystems.

He didn’t feel like he was missing out on a laid-back vacation.

“I usually look at computer work in an entirely different light,” he said. “Computing is my goofing off.”

Building professional skills

Almost 10 million American teens worked this summer, earning an average of $6 an hour, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those, almost all were in the retail trade or service industry: scooping ice cream, operating amusement park rides, taking theater tickets, or selling T-shirts at the mall.

Only 6 percent of teens worked in “business services,” a category that includes auto repair and maintenance as well as computer jobs. And fewer still were earning stock options.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool to own part of this company. Now I’m just waiting for them to go public,” said Knight, who spent some of his earnings to buy himself a computer.

Bradford Brown, a professor at University of Wisconsin who specializes in adolescent development, said that in general, these high-tech jobs are much better than the routine types of summer jobs kids have.

“This work is connected to their interests and skills, they have more contact with adults than most teen jobs, and they are preparing for a future,” he said. “The only problem comes along in the fall. If this employment continues into the school year and has heavy time demands on the kids, it could be a problem.”

But Brown said the solution is not stopping work altogether. He said teens generally do better in school when they work between 10 and 15 hours a week.

That’s what 17-year-old Elizabeth Yin plans to do.

She and eight friends this summer designed and built a new student life section for her school’s web site.

“Through the project, I hope to increase my programming skills, but perhaps more importantly, I hope to improve my project-coordinating skills,” she said.

Keynote Systems Inc.

http://www.keynote.com

Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network

http://www.jointventure.org

Bureau of Labor Statistics

http://stats.bls.gov

University of Wisconsin

http://www.wisc.edu