What’s Your First Job Story?
What was your first job? That question can bring up some amusing anecdotes or bring back bitter memories of painful teenage angst. From mowing lawns and babysitting (no taxes need to be paid in most circumstances!) and shocking experiences in fast food, to long sweaty afternoons de-tasseling corn, most teenagers have had some experience in the workplace. It has been a rite of passage into adulthood for millions. But the first summer job experience has changed over the last 50 years. In fact, since 2000, the number of working teenagers has dropped by 40 percent. Many teens don’t work in traditional entry-level jobs these days, due for some to increased summer school enrollments, and year-round sports and travel teams that take up a lot of time.
But for those of us who did experience the traditional teenager first job experience, what was it? Was it a typical entry level job? A restaurant? Delivery? And more importantly, what’s your favorite story from your first job? I could guess that perhaps you worked at McDonalds – it is estimated that one in eight living Americans once worked at McDonalds! Are you one? In fact, nearly half of the country has worked in a restaurant at some point in their lives, learning basic job skills like customer service, following procedures and meeting standards. Of course, the dark side of restaurant work is crazy levels of business rushes, late hours, split shifts, minimum wages and coming home smelling like grease or BBQ after your shifts. Yum!
The science of interviewing for a job
Entry level jobs are often the only road to take for teenagers with no experience. But the economic reality of today is changing the landscape. With unemployment at near-record lows, it is getting harder to find temporary low skilled workers. And it is tough to find potential employees who are professional and reliable. With Iowa’s unemployment rate around 3.2 % today, finding and maintaining workers is tougher than ever. And even the act of getting entry level employees into the store to interview is a challenge; the application system is streamlined, and the interview process is almost like a vitals check…if you have a pulse, you’re hired! Professionalism and appropriate interview skills are becoming a lost art. That may be why 85% of employers report they are even impressed when an applicant simply follows up after an interview.
So what was my first job?
For my first job, it still fills me with wonder. So many things could have gone wrong, starting right off the first hour of my first day. My first assignment was as a Set-up/maintenance worker at Drake University’s student activities center, the Olmsted Center. I was told I would be setting up ballrooms, washing windows, putting out water and mints for meetings and vacuuming…. anything and everything for a busy meeting and party / dinner facility. What they didn’t tell me was that I would also be cleaning bathrooms, cooking on a grill (with no experience) and hanging lights and banners in the ballroom. Now that may not sound too stressful, but I was 15 with no experience, and as far as hanging things in the ballroom, I was (and still am) afraid of heights! And 15? In those days they didn’t require a lot of ID to get a part time job on campus.
You want me to do what?
For the first hour on the job, I had to climb a 30-foot ladder — climb it all the way to the top of the ballroom ceiling. There was a dance that night and they needed the obligatory mirror dangling from above. Yes, a disco mirror ball – after all this was 1977! It was a hefty unit, maybe 20 pounds and over two feet across. My stomach sank when I stepped on the first rung of the ladder. Sure, I had been on a ladder before – a normal 10 footer maybe. This was a 30-foot ladder, that still didn’t reach quite as high as the ballroom ceiling. Slowly I climbed the first step, the second, then three. I’m clutching the monster mirror ball as if that will help, as I make my way up the ladder. I’m sweating and hanging on for dear life and my nerves began doing a job on my legs as I passed the halfway point. As I continued up higher, the ladder started swaying a little and my supervisor was at the foot of the ladder holding it while I considered questions of life and death. Once I reached the top and hooked up the mirror ball, I really didn’t know if I was going to make it back down. When I did gather up the courage to start back down the ladder I’m sure that I looked like a cat clinging to a tree.
I survived as I can tell you the story today. But I still can’t think why I wasn’t standing on the floor hanging on to the ladder, while my supervisor climbed up to hook up the mirror ball. With no training, no experience, and being only 15 years old, I’m sure that there were at least a dozen OSHA workplace rule violations in force. I’m amazed that I didn’t fall and break my neck.
As an encore, later that morning they sent me to the grill at the restaurant to work. They put an apron on me and set me up in front of the grill to cook burgers, drop fries and such. Again, no training, and only a basic understanding of my duties as the orders came up; burger, double burger, Philly, fries, rings, grilled cheese sandwich, on an on. I got a grilling crash course as we went along, perhaps not as harrowing as the ladder, but I did sustain some burns from the grill and from the fries’ grease over the first two hours I worked it. Again, the OSHA violations were rampant! And I didn’t know I would become a grill expert years later at another job, perhaps in part because of the experience I gained there.