Let's face it -- they're not all bad.

Kids today. What image pops into your head? Multi-colored hair? Multiple piercings? Pants too low and tops too little?

What about hiring a teenager? Are you comfortable with the work ethic of today's teens? Or are you thinking, "Surly attitudes. Lazy. Problems with authority?"

Perhaps you are thinking, "When I was a kid I knew how to WORK. Kids today -- fuggedaboutit."

Are you afraid that kids today are just not the kind of workers you need to grow your business? This thought is particularly distressing as our industry is experiencing a skilled labor shortage.

Well, let me tell you about a kid I know. Warning! What I'm about to share will SHOCK you.

DECA Champion, Eric Smith

When he was 12 years old, Eric started working for his dad Tom in the family plumbing company. Early on, he was hooked on the technical work.

"I was like Biff on Sesame Street. I loved the work and the tools. And I loved working with my dad."

Eric's interest in the business expanded when he took a course on Entrepreneurship at Arrowhead High School in Heartland, Wis. in his junior year. His teacher, Steven Melzer, encouraged him to join DECA, an association of marketing students.

"DECA stands for Distributive Education Clubs of America," Eric explained. Apparently, the word "distributive" is an old-fashioned word for marketing.

Eric told me he was not a great student. His grades were just OK and tests were particularly challenging for him. But when he got involved with DECA, he discovered a wellspring of talent he didn't know he had.

"DECA club members compete in a variety of marketing, sales and entrepreneurial events. Each event is a combination of a written plan and an oral presentation, or role-play. I chose an entrepreneurial event, and entered the DECA District Competition with a business plan I wrote for our company, Austin Plumbing & Heating. I was pretty pleased when I did well at Districts and moved on to the State competition."

The state competition was held at the Lake Geneva Grand Resort, a four-star hotel. No Holiday Inns for these kids! They dress in business attire (suits and ties for the gentlemen) at all times during the competition. The event requires a 10-minute presentation of the business plan. The judges also consider the written plan in the overall score.

"It's like pitching your business idea to a panel of venture capitalists," Eric offered by way of explanation. (I didn't know what a venture capitalist was until I was 38 years old!)

He was nervous! His confidence was low, and he expected to get blown away by the other competitors. Still he was proud of himself after he made his presentation.

"When the names were posted on the 'Finalists' board, I couldn't believe it. I made it to the final round of competition as a Top Ten finisher. I hurried to the next room of stone-faced judges, and did the role-play presentation again."

That evening, in an elegantly decorated ballroom, all the students, teachers and judges gathered for the awards ceremony. The presentation of awards was formal and very dramatic.

"The awards were given out for the top four finishers. As they called out the fourth, third and second places. I was disappointed when I didn't hear my name. I was hoping to place, having come so far already.

"Then, they announced the first place winner -- and called my name!"

Eric won the Wisconsin State DECA competition! And fell head over heels in love with the business game.

"I was so successful my first time out, I realized I had a talent for this. Though the written part of the competition was a struggle for me, I loved the role-play section. Presenting is a rush!"

Eric went on to the National competition, in Louisville, Ky. The contestants went to the Kentucky Derby and stayed at another top-notch hotel. They really lavish attention on these kids. First class all the way.

Eric didn't place, but he had a blast. He met scores of smart, ambitious kids. And got a fix on the next level of competition.

"I set a goal. I was going to Nationals the next year."

Aiming High

Senior year, Eric placed second in the State competition. He was off to Nationals! This year, however, they had expanded the competition and invited students from other countries. The International DECA event was held in Anaheim, CA.

"13,000 students attended this competition. It is really a best of the best event."

In his event, Eric made the cut and was announced as one of 16 finalists out of more than 200 entrants.

"Then, in front of the huge crowd at the awards banquet, Eric was announced as one of the Top Ten finishers.

"I didn't win, but I was very pleased with my placement in the Top Ten."

I asked Eric if he had any idea what kept him out of the first place slot. Were the other business plans better than his?

"You know, the judges were concerned about my prices. In my business plan, I explained why the plumbing company would not be the lowest priced service provider in the market, and I think the judges had a hard time with that. The winning business plans were companies who aimed to position themselves in the market with low prices."

Well, that doesn't surprise me!

And, from his real world experience in the family business, Eric is totally clear on the necessity of charging more than the going rate, regardless of whether or not the judges agree with him. (Atta boy, Eric!)

Still, the experience was wonderfully positive for Eric, Mr. Melzer and the rest of the Arrowhead DECA team. They were recognized as the DECA Chapter of the Year because they had so many high-placing members.

Future's So Bright

This summer, Eric is working with his dad and his uncle at Austin Plumbing & Heating. He intends to implement the award winning ideas of his business plan at the company. He wants to grow the business. And he wants a business of his own someday.

"After we graduated, a lot of my friends got scared. They don't know what they want to do. I'm not scared -- I'm excited. Now I can make my dreams happen for real. My idea of success is to be financially stable, and have good relationships with my family, and maybe have a family of my own. But not for a while," Eric assured me.

"My family has definitely impacted me in a positive way. My mom and dad always believed in me. They saw my strengths before I did.

"I will definitely hire DECA kids," Eric said like a seasoned business veteran. "They are willing to work."

There is no shortage of great workers. Consider the 13,000 cream-of-the-crop kids who attended the DECA finals. There is a shortage of great jobs. Most teens are just too darn smart to work long hours in extreme weather for little pay and no benefits.

Kids today -- yours and somebody else's -- are wonderful. Why don't you get a few of them working for you? Look into DECA at www.deca.com. This fine group is turning kids on to business, and improving communication skills and self-esteem in the process. How cool is that?