My #firstsevenjobs and why they matter

There’s a #firstsevenjobs meme going around, and it’s a great thing. It’s great to know that Stephen Colbert was once a busboy, or that Hank Green’s first employment was with Wal Mart. But in addition to the human interest of some of the humble or quirky beginnings of the rise of successful people, like Mo Rocca’s stint as a model in an ad for a psychiatric hospital, it reminds us that one does not have to start on top to get there. For every Mira Sorvino who went from babysitting to teaching English as a foreign language in Beijing, or Buzz Aldrin who by the time he hit his third job was a fighter pilot, there is a Michelle Malkin who was placing inserts in newspapers or a Will Chase who washed dishes in a cafeteria.

These low-paying and usually tedious and gritty jobs that convey no social status are to be found early on in the resumes of most successful people, and those who are considered successful that lack these beginnings frequently are the sort that had opportunities gift-wrapped for them and almost as frequently are not the role models we would pick out for our children. The skills and attitudes gained by employment on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder are those that can give an individual attributes desirable in any career field. This is exactly why increasing the minimum wage is more harmful than helpful, because it cuts off those bottom rungs of the ladder and denies opportunities for those without skills or experience to get into the job market at all, let alone having a chance to become upwardly mobile. Now that the political point is out of the way, here are my first seven jobs:

1 My first real job was at Little Caeser’s Pizza. I filled out an application and wore a tie to the interview, because that’s what I thought you were supposed to do in a job interview for anything. I was still in high school, so it was evenings and weekends washing pans and assembling pizzas, later moving to tending the oven where pizzas would cycle through on a conveyor belt. At the end of my time there I was working the register, which meant being out of the heat, not getting stuff on my hands, and being able to put on the next job application that I was trusted to handle money. The franchise was owned by a nice couple who were easy to work for, although my hours rarely coincided with theirs. My real bosses were the assistant managers, one of whom is now a civil engineer and the other was a cop and then went into business for himself.

2 My mother had married a man who owned an auto mechanic shop when I was in junior high. During my senior year in high school she saw an opportunity to lease what had been the auto service bay of a T. G. & Y. department store that was by that time vacant. Located on a busy corner, it seemed a pretty good spot to offer oil changes, transmission service, and radiator flushes. I went to work for her, along with my brother, and for a time an older cousin-in-law named Don Klick. I not only learned about cars, but also about keeping track of inventory and anticipating the amount of business that would come in. None of us got rich, but after I graduated high school I could afford my own apartment.

3 I graduated high school on a Monday, and on Friday I was on a plane to San Diego en route to boot camp in the Marine Corps. I signed up for the Reserves, so they sent me back at the end of the summer. Obviously one can learn a good bit of discipline and the ability to follow orders, as well as basic combat infantryman skills that are so much in demand in the labor market these days. My MOS(military occupational specialty) was Motor Transport, so I learned to drive hummvees and 5-tons. But I also learned a couple of other things. For many, and certainly for me, military service was an opportunity to be exposed to a wide variety of people from all sorts of places and backgrounds. I also learned about keeping a commitment, as drill weekend and later the impending Gulf War would make it difficult for me to do other things(it really wasn’t necessary to schedule October drill on OU-Texas weekend every stinking year). After Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 I was out of work and no one would hire me. Yes, that’s illegal, but it’s not like they told me the reason and I was too young and naive to figure it out at the time. And why would an employer want to hire and train someone that they thought would be gone in a month? But I signed a contract to serve and was unwilling to not follow through(the specter of legal sanction was also a concern).

4 Most young people do things they regret. I read an ad in the paper that promised a money-making opportunity and went to a meeting where wishful thinking allowed me to be convinced that selling vacuum cleaners was a good idea. To make a long story short, it wasn’t a good idea at all. I sold one, and that was to the father of a high school friend who I’m pretty sure just felt bad for me. After a month of trying to convince people to buy these silly things I threw in the towel. However, as I mentioned above, this was when war with Iraq was looming. I had six weeks of training with the Marines at Camp Pendleton to tide me over for a bit but was unable to find work when I got back and after running out of money I had to move back home. Then they activated my unit and we were sent to Saudi Arabia. Six months and one short war later I was back home, but with no bills and a decent amount of cash I did what many young men would do in that situation. I loafed. But money has this pesky habit of running out.

5 Military service will often lead someone to law enforcement, or it’s less reputable and lucrative cousin, security work. With the motivating factor of being broke to encourage me, I got a job as a security guard. I spent time at what was then the largest building in Oklahoma City where I was able to go up on the roof or walk through the halls of local financial power. Later I moved to another company where, after roving among several different facilities, I was placed at the sight of a former candy factory in Bricktown. The factory had moved to the north side of town, but they still received their sugar by rail downtown. The technician who would remove the sugar from the railcar by a process involving steaming hot water to liquidize it and pump it into holding tanks could not be allowed to be there alone, and a security guard to accompany him was the cheapest solution. I read more books at that job that at any other time in my life. The former candy factory at 1 E Sheridan looks a lot fancier now.

6 The candy company finally upgraded to receive their sugar at the factory itself and I was left high and dry. But not too long afterward I found work at a company called National Check Cashers where payroll checks were cashed for 6% the first time and 3% thereafter, but personal checks would always cost you 10%. Tax refunds, insurance settlements and other such big-ticket items were negotiable, but we were trained to start the bargaining on the high end. We also made payday loans. Our clientele were lower-income folks who either didn’t or couldn’t use banks. It might seem unfair to charge people to cash a check, or to charge the interest rates that come with payday loans, but it’s hard to offer a service if one doesn’t make a profit while doing it, especially when every transaction carries risk. What good is a check in your name if you are unable to exchange it for the money it represents? Rest assured that more reputable financial institutions have ways of transferring funds from their customers to themselves, no bank or credit union is staffed with unpaid volunteers. And I have yet to meet the self-righteous critic of the personal loan business who has had to borrow one themselves in order to keep the lights on or the car running until next month. But I must admit it was a less than reputable company, even though I met some really good folks while working there. And my ability to size up, understand, and communicate with all different kinds of people was expanded dramatically.

7 Things went sour at the check cashing outfit, but another person who found themselves in a bad way with that company found another opportunity and encouraged me to follow her there. It paid better, had better benefits, and had a regular schedule, like a real job. The downside was that the job itself was to collect on defaulted student loans. Initially it seemed to be very positive, because even though it was a government agency it supposedly brought in money and so paid it’s own way(never mind that the money it brought it was to pay back government subsidized loans). But after years of telling people they had to pay back the loans they were encouraged to take out by the constant messages to get formal education it began to weigh on me. Some of these folks should never have been trusted with anyone else’s money, not even taxpayer dollars. Some had taken out loans for programs that taught little and conveyed no marketable skills, only existing in order to soak up government money. And some had gone to what all would consider to reputable institutions and either didn’t finish because they probably should never have been encouraged to go in the first place, or did finish or even attain additional degrees only to find themselves so deep in debt that they could never emerge. It is hard to motivated to go to work when it involves demanding payment from individuals who were sold a bill of goods and were devastated because they bought in to what they were told. I was looking pretty hard for something else when they kicked me to the curb.

None of these jobs, nor any that I have had since, have been perfect. But in each place I made friends, gained valuable experience and skills, and learned about life. I think that in each instance the lessons and insights I took away were greater than they would be for a privileged individual who has employment handed to them, even if the paychecks were smaller. Take pride in any honest employment you do, regardless of the wage or how much or little value the rest of the world may place upon it.