Remembering Best and Worst Summer Jobs

From a Wall Street Journal story by Demetria Gallegos headlined “Remembering Your Best and Worst Summer Jobs”:

A teen might think the best summer job is one that is fun or easy or glamorous. An adult remembers those early jobs differently, through a filter of time and experience. Turns out, the best job was often the one that had the most lessons to teach, even if some of those lessons were painful.

We asked Wall Street Journal readers to share their memories of best and worst summer jobs. Sometimes these jobs affirmed a calling, or sparked a lifelong course correction. In all cases, they were an awakening to the world of work and making a contribution.

On guard

My best summer job was working as a lifeguard for three summers at Six Flags White Water in Marietta, Ga., in the early 2000s. As a deep-water lifeguard I worked in the areas in which the water was deeper than 4 feet, and got a slightly higher pay rate ($7 an hour in 2002) than the other guards in the park.

I loved it. The job required me to be present and to act if things started to go wrong. I had to observe trends and try to figure out intent with minimal information. Throughout the summer we would get randomly audited by our lifeguard-training provider, including having to do simulated rescues. I had many actual rescues because of the parts of the park that I worked in.

The observational skills that I picked up as a lifeguard, and bias toward action, helped me greatly as an Air Force instructor pilot and now as a healthcare continuous-improvement professional. Much of my career has been spent observing things and clearly describing what went wrong afterward—skills I started to use at White Water all those years ago.

Bryce Johnson, Omaha, Neb.

A lesson in grit

The worst job I had as a teenager was working at a grocery store as a bagger. I was 16 and initially hired as a cashier. One day, my cash register was about $50 short and as a result I was demoted to bagger. I wanted to quit, but my grandmother with whom I was living at the time in Knightdale, N.C., advised me to stick with it. So I stuck it out.

I also had to round up shopping carts in the parking lot. I remember having to get them in the rain. I would wrap my hair in a plastic shopping bag, put on a raincoat and still get soaked. It was horrible! In the summer it was so hot, in the winter, horribly cold and sometimes snowy.

Cleaning restrooms is a completely different pain that I won’t go into detail about. But working at this job influenced my work ethic and grit. Not giving up when I was demoted, and enduring physical labor in different seasons of weather made me a daredevil. I believe working there was a major influence in my decision to become an attorney, because it taught me that mental labor was easier than physical labor any day. It also became really apparent to me that I wanted to earn a living using my brain.

The best summer job I had as a teenager was working at a chiropractic office in Alvin, Texas. I completed general clerical tasks and connected patients to pain-treatment devices. I was paid about $25 an hour! I was 17 years old, so it was the most money I had ever earned. It left the incredible memory of feeling like I could have anything I worked for. Working there influenced me to aim for top-of-the-line professions because I knew that the pay rate was substantially higher, which sparked my interest in finance and my choice of an accounting major. My awareness of the pay differential ultimately led me to law school after researching careers that have the highest pay. I guess I will find out the truth when I graduate in May of 2024.

Jasmine Manning, Baton Rouge, La.

Constructive criticism

The best job I had was working in our family’s retail appliance and TV store each summer between the ages of 13 and 18. I served as a salesperson, a delivery person and an installer.

The contact with our retail customers, suppliers and other employees helped me overcome shyness and increase my self-confidence. And of course there was the money. My dad paid me minimum wage, and that was enough for me to indulge myself with a car the day after I received my license. I also developed a variety of business skills that served me well in managing a student-operated business during my years at Cornell.

My worst summer job was between my freshman and sophomore years of college as a laborer for a small contractor who knew less about construction than I did. The summer became one fiasco after another.

The lesson I learned from this contractor was to avoid what we later in the Army called “The 5 P’s” (Piss Poor Prior Preparation and Planning).

Jerry Michael, Binghamton, N.Y.

No sale

My worst summer job was the one I gave myself. In the summer between high school and college, I sold kitchen knives from a catalog. Before then I’d only worked washing dishes, mopping floors and scooping ice cream. I was excited to put on a tie for my little sales calls. I barely sold anything. They were expensive knives! I knew, because I’d had to buy my own sample set. I did manage to convince myself they were the best knives at any price. And I got my mom to buy a jackknife from the back of the catalog, for my dad’s birthday.

The day it arrived, I excitedly opened the box to show my mom the fine craftsmanship and safety features. I opened the knife, struggled to close it, and sliced my hand open. So Dad got a technically used knife and I learned some important life lessons.

One, that I was a terrible salesman. A “Glengarry Glen Ross” schmuck who couldn’t move product. Likely because I paid attention to what I needed, not what the customer needed.

I also learned a more cynical lesson: Rich kids can sell their parents’ friends an $800 knife set. But the parents in my working-class community weren’t going to buy high-price knives as a favor. I should have learned some humility, maybe to think before showing off the superiority of my opinion, but that lesson wouldn’t sink in for several more years.

Nick Douglas, New York City

No more corn fields

In 1974, as a young teen growing up in eastern Kansas, summer jobs were hard to come by. You were too young to work in the service industry, so babysitting or helping around the house for your allowance was about it for me. An opportunity for young teens to work on a farm detasseling corn for two weeks a year came with some great money. I signed up!

One week was all I was good for.

I developed a horrible heat rash along with cuts from the cornstalks. It was so severe that my mom had to call our doctor to get advice on a remedy for the continual burning sensation. After I was healed, I ended up becoming the office cleaner for my dad’s construction company. I took dirty toilets over the pain of that week in the cornfields.

Chris Nieder Johnson, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Driver’s ed

My father owned a small printing company in Midtown Manhattan. Most of the local deliveries were handled by foot messenger. But there was one small truck that was used for larger deliveries.

Once I was driving age, I became the fill-in driver when the regular guy went on summer vacation. Learning to drive a delivery truck in New York City was the best “driver’s education” ever. Almost 60 years later I still feel comfortable driving anywhere!

John Deermount, St. Petersburg, Fla.

The heart of an EMT

My best and worst summer job was the same one. I was a volunteer emergency medical services technician in rural Indiana. This was the summer between my high-school graduation and college. I planned to study to become a registered nurse.

It was the BEST job (and still is) because it was raw, unbridled, on the literal front lines of healthcare, answering the call of the wild with each 911 call.

It was the WORST job because it was volunteer and I had the desire for children and to be able to afford horses and property and insurance, heat, light, security…none of which was assured back then for EMS providers, more than 45 years ago. Even today, EMS providers are often not given decent benefits and protections.

So I bear the guilt and make the true confession that I am an Emergency Medical Technician at heart but I crossed over and became an RN because it had a basic pay rate and a reputation based on generations who had gone before. It also had an organization with lobbyists and supporters to rally behind the profession.

Meredith (Merry) Addison, Hillsdale, Ind.

A lesson in humility

The worst job I ever had was landscaping. After Hurricane Hugo blew through our state, it left a path of serious destruction. A fraternity brother and I started cutting trees off people’s homes. At that time we were making a lot of money because the landscaping companies were gouging residents. We did the work for a third the price of our competitors.

What did I learn? Humility. This kind of work is often looked down on by people in our society. Removing a very large tree from a roof is very difficult. Performing dangerous labor such as this takes great skill. We had to be inventive because we lacked the capital for proper equipment. It generally took us many hours of backbreaking work to remove a single tree.

I also learned not all customers are easy to deal with and how to handle confrontational situations. I learned that heat and humidity drain the life out of me. I learned a handshake was our contract and once a job is started, you see it all the way to the end. Ultimately, I learned that I needed to return to school to obtain a master’s degree so I could stop doing work I was not cut out for.

Paul Cannon, Powdersville, S.C.

A knack for leadership

I was 19 and about to complete my freshman year of college when I decided I would take the leap and apply to be a resident adviser for a U.S. high-school study-abroad program at Oxford University. I had never been overseas, and didn’t think I’d have another chance to get there, as a three-season cross-country and track athlete.

I confidently took kids punting down the creek (having never even heard of such a thing), guided them through ancient English villages and gamely taught them how to use the Underground. I acted as a dorm counselor, addressing many of the usual high-school group dynamic and growing-up dramas, some of which were way over my head.

In my limited free time, I ran every meadow and dirt path along the Thames and looped the track where Roger Bannister ran the very first sub-4-minute mile. I explored the storied libraries and museums of literary and academic renown, and made one too many visits to the Chips N Cheese truck. I even hit up the occasional pub with my co-workers, enjoying the thrill of grabbing a legal pint as a teenager.

That summer, I learned I had a knack for being a leader and quickly and resourcefully solving problems—for myself and others, experience notwithstanding. And I did all this in a foreign country for the first time. This inspired a lifelong and unsatiated curiosity to immerse myself in cultures, landscapes and people to compare and contrast them with my own world. My first summer working abroad helped me to identify some natural talents to apply for future work and life, but also uncovered an untapped sense of adventure that is central to my identity since.

Emily Ward, Richmond, Va.

Parental guidance

I was born in 1946. During my formative teen years, my summer job was to work alongside my parents on our farm in northwestern Ohio. The Depression years had been especially difficult for my parents.

The term “American work ethic” was certainly true of our family, as together we worked to survive and place food on the table. The labor-intensive effort left little time to develop and foster parent-child relationships. Physical affection and even daily communication was hard to come by. Life on a small farm in the 1950s was difficult, as I was expected to work alongside my parents from sunup to sundown, and my work was judged on competence and diligence, rather than interpersonal skills.

My parents accomplished what other parents of that era could only dream of—their three farm children were given the necessary tools to become college graduates. My farm experience plus their success-oriented expectation for excellence left an indelible impression. The lesson I learned was, even if one’s parenting skills are perceived as “poor” by peers, a parent can still foster a self-fulfilling prophecy of success that can influence one’s performance more than any differences in talent or intelligence. In retrospect, working alongside my parents during the summers was the best and most challenging job I ever had.

Allen D. Varner, Terre Haute, Ind.

The importance of teamwork

The best? Working as a candy-striper (volunteer) at our local hospital. It taught me the importance of making commitments and adhering to them, that navigating serious illness is an equalizer like none other, and that strong teams can accomplish way more than any individual—irrespective of the individual’s talent. I’ve been a healthcare executive and leader for more than 25 years because of those early experiences.

The worst? Working as a retail clerk at a five-and-dime store. Working there was my first experience with how marginalized lower-level positions and the people who hold them can become. Easily and often ignored, deemed unimportant, employees viewed as lacking ambition or too young to contribute, leaders must recognize that workers in these ranks may be valuable hidden assets. Embedded lessons? It is perilous to take workers at any level for granted. Your company’s next, best idea or innovation can come from anyone. It may also walk out the door and be given to a competitor if you undervalue the person or position from which it is generated.

Bergitta E. Cotroneo, Alexandria, Va.

Nontrivial pursuits

In the summers between ages 17 and 21, I was a summer-camp counselor/adventure trip leader for kids ages 11 to 15. It was awesome and exhausting and hilarious. Those summers had a huge impact on my life. It’s been over 10 years now since I was working at camp, and there isn’t a day I don’t think about my summers in the Catskills.

Despite it being almost a 180-degree difference from the job I do now (I’m an energy consultant), my time in the wilderness is a big part of why I chose to work on climate change. And the interpersonal skills that I learned at camp are something I still use daily to be resourceful in managing projects, or meetings and conferences. Camp taught me to make the most of any situation.

When I was a 26-year-old junior analyst in Paris (without French skills), I started organizing trivia nights for colleagues working in climate change to add a little fun and create camaraderie. A colleague remarked that she was impressed with how I managed within a week to find a venue and coordinate a group of 70 people into teams, while coming up with questions and managing all the logistics. But to me, this was similar to arranging a camp challenge night at the last minute, when s’mores night gets rained out.

Jessica Glicker, Brussels, Belgium

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