What I Learned from Summer Jobs


What I learned from summer jobs

Quite often in life it’s the unexpected side-trips where you learn more than you do from the main road you are traveling.  It’s not so much what you learned at college as what you learned while at college.

I worked my way through college with summer jobs and jobs during the school year.  It was a different world then, but what I took away from those jobs became as valuable as the college courses I was taking.

So as the memories fade from my courses, I have remembered and used many of the work experiences that I had while going to school.

Here’s 3 things I learned on summers jobs during college

  1. Don’t take someone’s lunch
  2. Don’t mess with someone’s paycheck
  3. Learn the product

In no particular order, here’s my Big 3 lessons.

Don’t take someone’s lunch pail

On my first day working on a construction crew I showed up at the job site with all the necessary gear; safety boots, hardhat, and my lunch pail (which my grandmother called a “dinner bucket”).  I saw everyone on the crew just placing their lunch pails under a shady tree near the road and then heading to the foreman to get their instructions for the day.

I asked one of the guys if it was OK to just leave your lunch sitting out.  In a serious tone he said that no one messes with anyone’s lunch.  End of discussion.

My take-away that endures to this day is that in the workplace you don’t take someone’s lunch – meaning – don’t interfere with personal items that are necessary during the work day.  This could be as obvious as the lunch in the refrigerator, or interpreted as don’t steal their idea or don’t rain on someone’s parade.

We all bring things to work – be respectful of what everyone brings to the workplace.

 Don’t mess with someone’s paycheck

On the construction job every Friday was payday.  On my first Friday I was anxious to get my paycheck.  I was surprised at the end of the day when we went back to the parking area and our paychecks were all nailed to a post in the parking lot.  The foreman went over and got the checks and called our names out to distribute the paychecks.

I asked the foreman about the safety of leaving paychecks just nailed to the post in the parking lot.  He looked at me with a wicked grin and said, “don’t mess with anyone’s paycheck”.  He used a common job site four-letter word instead of “mess”.

I took this workplace rule seriously.  It was often difficult to protect my salespeople from companies that didn’t want to pay commissions, needlessly raise quotas, not pay out promised bonuses, or any of the hundreds of things that salespeople reading this have fought for.

I have found that the most common reason for people to leave a company is when they believe they are getting screwed on their paycheck.  This does not mean that everyone gets their way or that companies should make exceptions.  It does mean that you need to be equitable – treat everyone the same, pay the same to everyone for equal work, and don’t keep changing the rules.

This workplace rule really needs repeating and reinforcing – don’t “mess” with someone’s paycheck – period.

Learn the product

Another summer job I had was working in a very small sporting goods store.  The store’s main season was winter ski season and I was working there during the summer.  I was often the only salesperson on the floor in a store that employed 6 to 8 people during the winter.

I was familiar with baseball, tennis, camping items and other summer sports.  I knew nothing about scuba diving and these were big ticket items – which I wanted to sell.  The manager told me to call him out whenever someone needed scuba gear – the problem was that he was almost never there.  So, I went to the nearby library (this was way before the Internet) got some books on the subject and read everything possible.  I then quizzed everyone who came into the store who knew anything about scuba gear.

One day a guy came into the store and wanted to buy some scuba gear.  I proceeded to show him several types to tanks and gear, explaining all the uses and features.  He asked if I did any scuba diving.  I told him that I had never done any, but I could answer any question he had and that he could talk with the store manager when he returned.  The customer proceeded to talk with me about the gear and ended up buying a lot of gear which I was ringing up when the manager came in.  My manager took one look at the purchase, made a glaring look at me, and asked the customer if he needed help.  The customer turned to him and said that he did talk to him the week before and when he came back I knew more than he did so I was the one who he bought from.

The lesson I learned was that it is possible to sell anything as long as you are honest and know what you are doing.  Study, ask questions, don’t pretend to know it all, and most importantly don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.

I’ve learned a lot of other valuable lessons over the years – mostly by making mistakes.  But, these 3 summer job lessons have stuck with me for many years and have help to guide some of my leadership principles.

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