The labor force participation rate for young people (ages 16 – 24) was a meager 60 percent this summer. High national unemployment coupled with culture that derides “McJobs” while glamorizing the likes of Honey Boo Boo conspires to deny young people the basic skills they will need to fill their essential roles in the economy.
Myriad forces are at play driving the labor force participation rate to historic lows, and the implications of this trend could fill volumes. Rather than delve into all that I want to recount some of the low wage starter-jobs that taught important lessons. Rather than seeing these jobs as somehow beneath them young people need to view these chores through the lens of their video game orientation. By “flipping burgers” minimum wage workers can “level up” and “unlock achievements” that will pay dividends later.
When I was 14 years old I cleaned and re-stocked a lunch truck. It was the kind of truck that regularly showed up at places like factories and warehouses to sell coffee and pre-packed snacks. I had to show up every afternoon to prep the truck for the next day. I was paid $20 a week to maintain the “roach coach.” The pay was the same whether it took me fifteen minutes to complete the task or two hours, so, I learned to hustle. I also learned that a good reputation could land you a second truck.
Old enough to work legally, I got a job at a Levi’s store in the Mill Creek Mall, and later at another jeans store at the eponymous 5th Street Mall. These were minimum wage jobs. These jobs were also critical teachers, and not merely because I acquired a nearly magical ability to fold shirts with a single motion. At 16, I got a lesson in choices.
Like before, more work meant more money, but now the money could purchase freedom – the ability to pay for movies, music, dates, and gas for my Chevy Nova. I learned that freedom need be purchased with my time, and other things like sports, activities, and teenage laziness competed for that time. A person cannot have it all. We have to make choices and live with those choices.
Delivering for Domino’s Pizza when their 30 minute guarantee meant something (a free pizza) was as close as I ever be to feeling like a fighter pilot. As a driver, recklessly racing around town, I learned that just showing up was not enough. Better money could be had by working the busier times, and the times when the rest of the world was at play – like during a Super Bowl. Again, hustle and sacrifice had benefits.
During the college years I held internships, worked as a resident assistant, and for a program of Johns Hopkins University. These were pre-professional in nature, and therefore need to be measured differently than the low skill jobs.
Oftentimes, while home on break, my father found me work at the offset printing shops that employed him. The work varied from collating finished products, to stripping down old film and masking, or developing four-color proofs of images for publication. I did not earn these opportunities, but was given these no- and low-skill jobs because my father had earning the credibility to vouch for me.
The lesson was in responsibility to others. I learned to develop my reliability and reputation because they reflected on my father. Some debts – like those a son owes a father – can never be repaid. But the trust can be and should be protected. Sometimes you have to perform well because others deserve it.
This was similar to another lesson reinforced by my mother. On occasion, a friend would ask me to cover their newspaper route for a few days. My first impulse was to deny the friend’s request – something my mother would not allow. The lesson was that friendship and loyalty were not matters of convenience. It was valuable instruction.
During graduate school, the teaching assistant opportunities did not pay enough to cover the bills. In addition to instruction, I held two jobs.
The first was at a specialty store selling “natural” products, things like organic apple vinegar and gluten-free crackers. But it was the pills that put money in the tills. It was easy work and I was soon trusted to balance the books, yet I ran afoul of the owner. I could not bring myself to push capsulized snake oil to old ladies leaving off their social security checks. When these poor souls would get off the bus to drop $75 (1996 dollars) on 30 shark cartilage pills I had the temerity to share copies of scientific articles detailing the lack of evidence in preventing cancer. The customers usually bought the pills anyway. Some did not. Either way the owner did not approval. I learned that it felt good to do what I felt was right.
The other job was as an overnight desk clerk at a Motel 6. There I learned that sometimes, work just sucks. Still, sometimes it is just something you have to do.