It happens every year: the inevitable end of summer. Back in the day it meant saying goodbye to the summer job, that staple of character-building we can now look back on fondly. We asked a few HYC execs about their most memorable summer jobs. Did they pay their dues? What helped prep them for the demands of their current roles? From retail to manual labor, some had poignant takeaways. Others were just plain gross.
Ed O’Neill was an imposing Irishman who swore with gusto and sported a bright red hairpiece. He was my first boss and one of my greatest inspirations.
When I took the job at Ed’s landscaping company I wasn’t looking for a mentor. All I cared about at age 15 was making a decent wage. The pay was good and the work was steady. I learned how to cut grass, trim shrubs, and stay vigilant with weeds. Working outside had its advantages. It gave me time to think. It forced me to take pride and care in what I cultivated.
The job also made me part of a team. Ed was at the helm. A true entrepreneur, Ed felt a personal responsibility for each project. He instilled that feeling in each of his employees. He encouraged hard work, but never forgot to recognize our efforts. He was on site with us, always ready with a batch of donuts or raunchy limerick. We wanted to make him proud, so we doubled our efforts. With our camaraderie, creativity, and sweat, the business flourished.
I strive to keep Ed’s entrepreneurial philosophy alive by creating a collaborative and fun workplace. I may be less of a rogue than he was, but I still repeat his signature phrases from time to time. And I still have a green thumb.
I was a well-behaved, student-council-president-type in high school. That all changed the summer before my junior year. In desperate need of funds, I applied to be a cocktail waitress at Wellman’s Pub in Des Moines, Iowa. I had no experience, but figured it would be a piece of cake. How hard could it be to take a few orders, deliver some beverages and exchange dollar bills?
Boy, was I wrong. It was all good until 11PM -2AM on Saturday. The place was always packed with customers who just got rowdier and rowdier. The drinks couldn’t come out fast enough. I think I spilled more beer than I served. After an entire summer of working until the wee hours of the morning, I knew full well that waitresses do not get the respect they deserve.
The good news? I made over $4,000 cash. I also realized that I would NEVER make a good waitress. It motivated me to think more seriously about how I wanted to spend my time.
My best friend in high school talked me into working with him at a “camping resort”. It seemed like an easy job…basically a lot of driving around the grounds in a pick-up truck doing menial labor while working on our tans and flirting with the boss’ cute daughters.
My friend failed to tell me about our most disgusting duty: pumping raw sewage from trailers. Twice a week, we emptied the holding tanks. The challenge was to avoid being showered in a steady flow of what can only be politely described as partial solids. Mr. and Mrs. Robekee’s trailer was especially nasty, due to their trailer’s particular location. The pressure was strong with “Robekee’s Rocket” and whoever pumped it would always “get hit”. Needless to say, one can never quite prepare for being intimately introduced from head to toe with the remnants of someone else’s culinary indulgences. I’m wondering if it was worth $3.35/hour?
Somehow we did end up taking the bosses daughters out. Perhaps they felt sorry for us. It certainly couldn’t have been our literal (and unfortunate, liberal) use of the campground’s “eau de toilette.”
Growing up on Cape Cod, I had my pick of summer job opportunities catering to the seasonal influx of tourists. The summer before my last year of high school, I was a tour guide on a sightseeing boat. I still remember the spiel I gave as we sailed between Hyannis Harbor and Hyannisport: “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard the motor vessel Prudence….”
I went off-script on occasion to keep it interesting. Our passengers were out-of-towners who came for the enjoyable one-hour boat ride and scenic views, but mostly to catch a glimpse of the Kennedy family homes. “Which one was Bobby’s?” “Did you say President Kennedy lived in a different house when he was in office?” The tourists devoured the information I divulged like the nearby seagulls did the clams along the shoreline. Sometimes the Kennedys themselves would sail past. Just for the heck of it, I’d direct the tourists’ attention in the opposite direction. Perhaps I relished my power a bit too much.
The experience was great preparation for my current role. I had a chance to deliver presentations, serve and interact with customers, and dole out valued information.
Fun fact: Feet have more than 500,000 sweat glands and can produce more than a pint of sweat a day. That’s a bit of intel known only to podiatrists and poor shoe salesmen, such as myself.
My junior year in high school, during a prolonged economic recession, I was thrilled to get a job at a mall shoe store. As a younger version of Al Bundy, I helped customers cram their sweaty tube socks into brand spanking new Kinney shoes. In those times, it was pretty darn nice to earn anything –– even my plush minimum wage. But the memory of all these feet helped motivate me to study a little bit harder in college, while pursuing my coveted liberal arts degree.
During my stint in retail, I saw it all. Believe it or not, fine gentlemen’s clothing attracts all sorts of characters. There was the professional athlete who commandeered the fitting room with his entourage. There was the Average Joe who bought two suits a year. There were high-powered execs with expense accounts, and dudes with grocery bags full of cash. I was living on commission and had to sell to all of them.
Learning to sell was learning to communicate. It was one thing to have expertise, another to deliver it properly. My buddies and I never knew who would walk through the door, and had to adapt quickly. Before long, I thrived on uncertainty. Regardless of taste, or temperament, I set out to understand each customer on some level. The more I empathized with them, the better I could tailor my approach.
In hindsight, the retail job was a crash-course in relationship building. I still rely on empathy on a daily basis. True collaboration depends on it.