Vail Daily column: Tough summer jobs teach good lessons
Boy, did I feel lucky when I scored my first summer job. I was 15. Once I reported to work the feeling of good fortune rapidly dissipated. My manager at Poncho’s Mexican Buffet was named Minnie. A rather ironic name considering she was as close as a human could come to resembling a ball; and she was a mean sphere. Minnie could have assigned me any position along the cafeteria line — tacos, enchiladas or chile rellenos — but she always made me work the tamale station. Steam. Texas. Summer. I looked perpetually wilted. Worse, whenever anything ran low on the cafeteria line I was sent to the kitchen for refills, where I had to elude a gauntlet of groping guys.
My second job was at a bakery run by a guy named Thor. He was from Iceland. Working for Thor dispelled my preconceived notion that people who baked cookies and cakes for a living were innately nice. It was a segregated work environment where the girls worked the counter and the boys worked in the kitchen. The boys were paid more than the girls. According to them, their job was harder.
These were only the beginning of my minimum wage career that spanned my high school and college years and included jobs as a sales clerk, waitress, cleaning lady and nanny. My worst jobs involved punching a time clock and usually hovered around minimum wage. Thor paid even less. Low-skill, low-wage jobs at the mall and fast food restaurants are practically a rite of passage in America. During my high school years, landing a summer job for spending money or to save for a car was living the dream. Most of the jobs came with questionable managers and hostile work environments. It was an education.
Thanks to time clocks, the manager knew when I was three minutes late. I learned to be on time. Dealing with the retail public, I learned diplomacy and how to keep my emotions in check. I learned how hard it was to earn a dollar and my relationship with money forever changed. I developed a life-long empathy for workers on the bottom rung of the ladder, because I was once on that rung.
Still, I wanted to spare my children the same experiences. However, I know truly effective learning comes from direct experience. Better my kids’ initial work experiences and the entirely new relationships they will have with bosses, coworkers and customers come in the controlled environment of a summer job while their food and housing are taken care of, than later when they are responsible for paying their own rent. Shielding my kids from the challenges of difficult jobs when they are young will do them no favors when they get older. Instead, it will deprive them of an education. As they move up their own ladders, the challenges will still be there, but the stakes will be higher.
So, yes, I want my children to experience entry-level, minimum wage jobs and have them learn a few lessons the hard way if for no other reason than to motivate them to work hard and study harder so they never have to work at those jobs for a real living. Many Americans are not that fortunate. For them, a low-wage job is not optional, but a necessity. To be clear, hard work for a wage whether it is at Wendy’s, Walmart, Microsoft or Ford is the honorable and responsible thing to do. But frankly, most people do not aspire to minimum wage jobs, nor do they want their children aiming so low. In addition to the poverty level wages, there is very little opportunity for advancement or professional growth in such positions. As bad as some of my summer jobs were, I did not need them to live, and neither will my children. That is the plan anyway. Perhaps there are kinder, gentler methods for teaching children this lesson, but none as expedient. I do not know a better way to motivate someone to do well in school than to provide them experience working in the only jobs they will be qualified for if they do not.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.
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