Wes: I hear many agonizing tales of workplace woe for teens and young adults. Some reflect only the complaints of an entitled generation — “I, like, called my manager at 2 p.m., and he was, like, mad because I was scheduled for noon. He just doesn’t get that I’m not really a morning person…” Others involve real cases of exploitation, sexual harassment and bullying. Not exactly sweatshop conditions, but no one should be subjected to such treatment, especially at 17.
Young employees rarely have much good to say about work and many employers only tolerate them because they need the labor. Not exactly a winning combination. Recently, however, I encountered a young man we’ll call James, whose energy and dedication to his job impressed me as few have.
James was in junior college when he realized he might not yet have the maturity to do well. So he took time off and started working full time at “a burger joint.” James hurls fries and burgers out a window to customers lined up in drive-thru, as do thousands of teens.
What is remarkable is the way James approaches his work. Instead of complaining, James regales me with heroic tales of how much product he moved on a Saturday afternoon; how he handled an angry customer who got the wrong order, by going out to her car and making things right with a smile, apology and a free shake.
He keeps the place spotless, understands the inventory system, manages waste efficiently, and predicts and responds to rush hours. He even seems to have fun with his co-workers.
He recently had to orient new store managers, who he confided quite seriously “Had no idea what they were doing.” They felt so lucky to have James, they gave him a 35-cent raise.
I once asked James how he keeps this positive attitude, noting that most kids hate these jobs. He replied, “Don’t get me wrong. I hate the job too. But I figure as long as I’m there I should do the best I can and learn everything I can.”
Wow. Not yet 20, James understands something many teens (and adults) don’t get: career karma. Pass on what you want to get back in return. Respect will return the same, maybe not immediately or from that business, but it will down the road.
Eventually James will be a manager at that burger joint — not the career he expected, and not the one he’ll have in five years. But for now, it’s a great way to spend his time while living independently and thinking through what he really wants to do before going back to school.
As Dr. King famously said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”
Katie: Let’s have a show of hands from all the readers who recently shopped at a grocery store, had something shipped to their residence or hired someone to do maintenance on their lawn, home or car. I see just about everyone’s raising a hand — at least in my imagination.
After all, these services allow us to satisfy our needs and wants, and they’re so deeply rooted in our society that losing any one would cripple professional and domestic life. The people who keep this conveyer belt of goods and services moving play a vital role in the economy — and many of them don’t need college degrees to succeed in their jobs.
Some young adults might find that they have more success in trade schools than in college, and if they enjoy what they learn, those skills could prove more valuable than a college degree.
Alternately, by entering the workforce from the bottom of the pay scale, dedicated employees like the one Wes describes can rise to higher management positions, which have the added bonus of putting easily transferable skills on a resume.
For young adults who’ve envisioned themselves in academically demanding careers since pre-school, the thought of working a hourly job may sound demeaning. But it’s not.
The only real shame would lie in surrendering to self-pity and giving up on success of any kind. As FDR said in a 1932 commencement address: “[A]bove all, try something.”
Success in any endeavor requires a tremendous work ethic. Lemonade doesn’t flow effortlessly from life’s proverbial lemons, so however an individual makes a living, he or she should try to do it with energy. The passion one invests in one’s work will echo back in full force.