Gracie Hodgkins decided not to play her senior year of soccer at Windham High because she couldn’t make the summer commitment while working 40-45 hours a week as a dockhand at Moose Landing Marina on Brandy Pond in Naples, a job that lasted into October. She also juggles a regular baby-sitting gig with schoolwork. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Gracie Hodgkins, a senior at Windham High, grew up playing soccer, basketball and lacrosse. While she gave up basketball after eighth grade, Hodgkins was on the varsity soccer team as a junior during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and would have played lacrosse had it not been for an appendectomy.

As a soccer player, Hodgkins was “a good player. I was willing to play wherever they needed me. I think I probably would have started this year” for a team that ended up going unbeaten in Class A.

But this summer she decided to prioritize her job and chose not to play soccer as a senior.

“It was a hard decision to make, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to commit to the summer soccer with work,” said Hodgkins, 17. “Then I just had to weigh the factors of school and all the classes I was taking and I just came to the choice that it would be too much on me during my last year of high school to play.”

Several southern Maine high school coaches said they had lost players to jobs, particularly during the summer preseason. Others said they knew they had players who had returned to their sport but were still balancing heavy workloads. Some coaches have made accommodations to make it easier for students to keep working and playing.

That some high school students choose work over sports is not a new phenomenon. But this year the pay-versus-play dilemma has been magnified by a combination of factors. A labor shortage forced many employers to pay above minimum wage – sometimes significantly more – while increasing the amount of available shifts for teen workers. And with limited opportunities to play sports and extensive remote learning in the 2020-21 school year because of pandemic restrictions, some high school students with more free time had already entered the job market.

“I think I lost a couple kids because they told me they would rather work because they were making great money,” said Eric Lane, the football coach at Traip Academy in Kittery. “Especially if you already missed a year of playing and you were working this whole time, you’re just going to say, ‘I’ll keep working.’”

Maine’s workforce participation has fallen from 62.5 percent before to the pandemic to 60.5 percent, according to Mark McInerney, director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information with the Maine Department of Labor.

Teenagers have always filled a seasonal employment role, but this summer more and younger teens joined the workforce. Work permits are required for teenagers younger than 16. Maine’s Department of Labor processed a record 6,246 work permit applications between Jan. 1 and Oct. 21 – nearly double the number of applications in 2020 (3,206) and at least 40 percent more than during the pre-pandemic years of  2019 (4,482) and 2018 (4,390).

“Generally speaking, we are seeing that tight labor market conditions are leading to wage increases in a number of sectors that traditionally employ younger workers, including leisure and hospitality and retail trade,” said Jessica Picard, communications manager at the Maine Department of Labor.

As a dockhand at Moose Landing Marina on Brandy Pond in Naples, Hodgkins earned $13.15 an hour plus tips for pumping gas and helping renters with their boats. During the summer she consistently worked 40-plus hours, with time-and-a-half for any overtime hours. Hodgkins was earning $525 to $625, plus tips, on a weekly basis in the summer at the marina.

She continued to work after school and on weekends through Indigenous Peoples Day and also has a twice-a-week babysitting gig.

“I want to start saving for college next year and not come out with all sorts of student debt and to have money when I’m there, too, to be able to go out and do stuff with friends,” said Hodgkins, who is looking at colleges in Massachusetts that have nursing programs.

Hodgkins said she does miss playing soccer this season. The Windham girls’ soccer team is undefeated and has advanced to the Class A South final.

“It’s hard to see everyone playing and have me not playing,” Hodgkins said. “I would say I’m missing it and wish I could play, but then again I do feel like I made the right choice for me.”

Proponents of participation in high school athletics point to numerous studies that indicate playing a sport decreases the likelihood that a student will drop out of high school and often increases grade point averages. High school athletes are more likely to attend college, particularly among girls. They are also less likely to smoke, or use drugs or alcohol. Foundations for general healthy living and exercise are also built through high school sports.

“Our number one sales pitch is that you have the whole rest of your life to work and your clock is ticking on your athletic career,” said Sanford football coach Mike Fallon. “Sometimes that’s hard to sell to a 16-, 17-year-old kid who is putting some coin in his pocket, but you try to remind them that playing high school sports is something very special that they will remember for a long time.”

The argument that high school sports has greater long-term value is easier to make when it is being compared to the traditional minimum-wage job with limited hours/earning potential. It gets trickier when a teenager who is already looking ahead to college, or needs to pay for car insurance, can earn over $600 a week.

In coastal communities such as Wells and Kennebunk, the labor shortage this summer drove wages over $20 an hour for tasks like washing dishes at a restaurant or working at a seasonal sandwich shop.

“I have a player who did end up sticking with football who told me he was making $21 an hour washing dishes and there was not one week this summer where he didn’t get double time for working overtime,” said Wells football coach Tim Roche. “When it’s, ‘I can make this much and buy a car, or go to football practice,’ it’s a dilemma for kids.”

In Sanford, Fallon recognized that many of his players were working extensively in the summer and some would continue to work during the school year. He made the decision to eliminate the traditional double sessions during the first weeks of preseason. During the season he’s also done away with an 8 a.m. Saturday session, which for years had been a part of his program with an expectation of attendance.

Fallon said in Sanford, “because we’re a working-class community,” he’s always had several players who also worked.

“What magnified it for us was these kids went a whole year of being able to play very limited or no sports at all,” Fallon said. “They found themselves with extra time and add to that the fact that employers are desperate for help and the next thing you know you’re stocking shelves at Walmart for really good money, or delivering pizzas for good money.”

Fallon said he doesn’t think he lost any players who directly chose work over football, “but I was nervous it was going to happen, so that’s why I eased up on the weekends and we don’t do double sessions anymore.”

Parker Pease, 17, a senior football player at Sanford High, said those accommodations make a difference. Pease works five days a week at the Walmart stocking shelves, getting as close to the maximum of 24 hours per week during the school year as possible.

“I really appreciate all of the schedule changes that (Fallon) has done and all the planning he does,” Pease said. “He knows that most high school kids end up with the night shifts and the (weekend) shifts.”

Pease has worked for Walmart for about 18 months and has seen his hourly wage rise from $14 when he started to $18. During the summer, Pease was working full time at Walmart and helping his dad, Adam, who owns a construction company but still made time for weight-lifting and speed workouts with Sanford football.

During the school year, Pease leaves his house in Sanford around 7 a.m. to get to school. After two periods at the high school he shifts to the plumbing program at Sanford Regional Technical Center, then transitions to football practice. Monday through Thursday, he leaves practice and heads straight to work for a 6-10 p.m. shift. Saturday is an off day. On Sunday, he works a six-hour shift.

Pease, who also plays lacrosse, said he was committed to continuing with sports.

“I’ve always loved sports. It’s always been my favorite thing to do,” Pease said. “But me and my dad talked about it a lot because he was thinking it was going to be too much. And I said, ‘Hey, if it’s too much, I can ask (work) to change my schedule.’

“We had a pretty good talk about how I would still need to get my schoolwork done and do well in school, and play sports and do well with sports and still have the energy to do all this.”

Pease said there is value in having such a busy schedule, both in the present and the future. His income allows him to make performance upgrades to his 2005 Saab 9-3.

“I never had a thought in my mind that I wanted to stop playing football,” Pease said. “I knew it was going to be difficult to do all of it, but there has never been a time where I felt I don’t want to do this anymore.”


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