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8 lessons we learned from our first jobs

BY Liza Kaufman Hogan, Next Avenue  August 29, 2014 at 12:29 PM EDT

What did you learn from your first job? Photo by Flickr user dlewis5.

What did you learn from your first job? Photo by Flickr user dlewis5.

What was your first job? Serving fast food, delivering newspapers, cleaning hotel rooms, picking tobacco?

Whatever your answer, chances are you worked hard for little pay and wouldn’t trade the experience for all the better jobs you’ve had since.

In honor of Labor Day, we asked Next Avenue readers to share what they learned the first time they earned a paycheck.

As you might expect from a website focused on mature Americans, some of our first jobs scarcely exist anymore, like car hop, switchboard operator and pinsetter for a bowling alley. A few readers picked crops in hot fields and many more started in bottom-rung, office jobs or grueling fast food service. Whether the jobs were old or new, back-breaking or boring, many of the lessons learned were the same.:

1. A bad first job can focus your career goals.

Several readers learned pretty quickly from their first jobs that they wanted to do something else.

Tom Meade’s first job was picking tobacco in the Connecticut River Valley. “I was 14 and lasted a day. It was scorching hot, and the bosses were terribly mean. The next day, I applied for a job in the meat department of a grocery store. I got it and spent as much time as possible in the walk-in cooler that summer.”

Several readers learned pretty quickly from their first jobs that they wanted to do something else.

Tom Meade’s first job was picking tobacco in the Connecticut River Valley. “I was 14 and lasted a day. It was scorching hot, and the bosses were terribly mean. The next day, I applied for a job in the meat department of a grocery store. I got it and spent as much time as possible in the walk-in cooler that summer.”

Glenda Beaumont of Little Rock, Ark., started work at a factory out of high school. “My parents had similar jobs for their careers and thought I was pretty much set for life if I would hang in there. However, I had seen their exhaustion and boredom and knew there had to be something better.

“Working at the factory opened my eyes as to what my life would probably be like if I did not continue my education. By fall, I had made the decision to return to school, and I am grateful for that first job,” Beaumont wrote. “It has made the difference in having a job which I felt at the time was mind numbing, and having a job where I made the call on how I would spend my time daily.”

Don C. of Minneapolis, Minn. started out setting pins in a bowling alley as a teen. “It taught me a) that it feels good to get really proficient at your job, and b) to never take another boring, tightly repetitive job that could go on seemingly endlessly.”

2. Start working early.

Joseph McManus, of North Andover, Mass. started work in 1957 at 10-years-old delivering newspapers before and after school. “I recommend you go to work as early in life as possible in order to encounter the feedback from boss and client expectations, experience the rigors of a full schedule and the rewards of realizing early in life that you can earn your way,” he said.

3. Low pay is better than no pay.

Some jobs our readers held first paid almost nothing, like $1 per hour for cleaning a school after hours, $1.25 per hour for typing reports or a whopping $1.89 per hour for a nurse starting out in a pediatric hospital unit. Lucy C., the car hop, made just 35 cents an hour plus tips. (We hope they were generous for all that running back and forth.)

“I thought I was making good money,” wrote Sue W. of San Mateo, Calif., recalling her first job as a maid cleaning hotel rooms for $2.94 per hour with added perks. “If you worked a full day, you could grab a meal from the hotel kitchen.”

Low pay was a lesson in itself for readers like Terri Traudt, 55, of Minneapolis, Minn. “My first paying job was taking tickets at a movie theatre for $2 per hour. It taught me the virtues of responsibility and budgeting. If I wanted to buy a $10 pair of jeans I would think ‘Wow — I’d have to work five hours for those jeans!’”

4. No job is too menial.

Several readers started with some tough jobs in fields that are under-appreciated and often underpaid. The experience of working in these jobs stayed with some readers and affected them many years later.

“My first job was cleaning (after school) at the Catholic school I attended. I was in 7th grade and got $1 an hour,” wrote Carter Drossel, 57, of Plymouth, Wisc. “It taught me not to be ashamed of any kind of work. As it happened, 35 years later I would have to take a job at a convenience store to make ends meet.”

Louise Jackson, 77, wrote about picking cotton in a neighbor’s field as her first job. “My father was not a farmer but he insisted that my brother and I learn to work with our hands,” she wrote, explaining that her father told them, “‘We expect you will be professionals … but we never want you to forget how hard people have to work to put bread on your table and clothes on your backs.’”

Jackson added: “It was hard, hot, backbreaking work, but I stayed with it and, in the process, learned to be friends with all sorts of people, many of whom would be doing this kind of work all their lives.”

Marci Tyrol’s first job was bagging groceries and later working as cashier. “We should all, at some point in our lives, take a job serving the public to learn that you should always treat cashiers, waitresses, ticket agents, etc. as you would want to be treated.

“Never lose an opportunity to try something new,” she advises, “You never know where the path will lead you. See each job, no matter how humble, as a learning experience!”

5. Dress appropriately.

Several readers said it was important to follow the dress code at work, but Judi Linville of St. Louis, Mo., was especially glad that she wore tennis shoes instead of flip flops to her first job — caring for her 9-year-old cousin one summer when she was 14. When he and a friend ran away and hid in the treehouse she was able to find him.

“They didn’t think a girl could do that,” she wrote. “Maybe that is why equal pay for equal work still resonates with me. “

6. Work is what you make of it.

First jobs are often the ones no one else wants. That was certainly the case for Vicki Gehlert of Port St. Lucie, Fla. who started out at age 12 mucking horse stalls for riding privileges.

Despite the dirty work, she loved “the camaraderie of similar minds, the smell of the barn (and) doing something tangible. Forty-four years later, I have shoveled manure in all sorts of jobs, just not the literal kind.” She advises first-timers to “be yourself, enjoy your similarities and your differences amongst your work peers, ask and learn from each other. Every job has its manure, but it is all what you make of it. “

7. Don’t date the boss (or if you do, find another job).

In a plot line straight out of Mad Men, Christine Osbourne described her first job as a typist in the creative department of an advertising agency. “I thought that eventually, I wanted to become a copywriter. However, I caught the eye of the agency president and we began dating,” says Osbourne.

The experience taught her this: “If you are a typist and start dating the president of the company, you will not be taken seriously as a professional until you move on to the next agency.”

8. Do what you love.

Harold Sharlin, 89, of Washington, D.C., has worked longer than most. He shows us that you have time to get it right, and if you don’t like what you are doing at first, try something else.

“Your job should be one of the most satisfying things in your life. If it is not, change it,” says Sharlin. “I had three jobs after I graduated college and since none of them were satisfying, I changed one more time. The fourth choice was teaching and I spent 25 years in a rewarding and fulfilling job.”

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