Along with some extra spending money or savings for college, teens learn valuable lessons from their early work experiences that stay with them for years to come.
“Over the last 5-8 years, we’ve seen a declining opportunity for young people to be employed,” President and CEO of the Center of Workforce Innovations (CWI) Linda Woloshansky said. “These jobs are being taken by more experienced workers who have been displaced for one reason or another. One thing that we know for sure is that you don’t know how to work unless you work. This summer, we’re asking not just employers, but adults in our communities, to remember their first job opportunity and give someone a chance.”
Citing the many advantages of youth who are work ready, Woloshansky is concerned that too many students leaving high school or even into their college years are shunning work for academic and/or athletic pursuits.
“Young people need to know what the trade is – I come in on time, do what is expected of me and get paid a fair wage,” she explained. “Along the way they get some feedback about their performance. They need to experience that so there will be something on their resume to sell to employers that sets them apart. Something that shows they have the initiative and energy to balance work while getting an education.”
Chairman of the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board’s Youth Employment Council, Keith Kirkpatrick works with CWI to help create pathways to employment and self-sufficiency for young people.
“What we’ve found is that everybody has story when it comes to how important that first job was,” he said. “Whether it’s the first yard they mowed, the first time babysitting or the first time with a boss or employer, there is almost always an important impact, something that made a difference, an experience that they carried with them for the rest of their life.”
In order to put young people in a position to learn, they need an opportunity to earn, according to Congressman Pete Visclosky, who represents Indiana’s First Congressional District.
“After paper routes, my first job was in my junior year of high school. I worked for Ugo Angotti and his wife Margaret at Margo’s Catering Service. They had a storefront at 36th and Broadway in Gary. It was a general catering business – they provided food for the employee cafeterias at Wards and the Village Shopping Center, the concessions at Gilroy Stadium, at wakes, for New Year’s Eve parties at the KofC, at Marquette Park and the Gary Armory. On Friday’s they had their own fish fry. I did just about everything – from cleaning the dishes and scrubbing the floors to short order cook and delivering the food. The pay was .75 an hour and all you can eat,” he said.
“Ugo and his wife were just wonderful – school always came first, and if I had a debate meet or something else they would always work around it. They always treated me with respect. One time when I had to deliver an order to a wake, coffee and sweets, I got back to the store and Ugo asked me if I put coffee in the pot. He didn’t say anything else, but apparently the people had called so I ran back there with two pots full of coffee. I have just been blessed in life with the employers I have had. Looking back, it wasn’t so much about the money I made, but how they treated me. I learned to always try and do my best. When you are working for someone, you need to work hard for that person, and if you make a mistake, you need to fix it and move on.”
Even if a young person runs into roadblocks on the job, Kirkpatrick points out the importance of the experience.
“I’m surprised by the number of people who come into my office that are 19-22 years old and have never had a job,” he said. “We had one young man help us with a mailing who wasn’t doing a very good job – the labels were crooked and the papers were folded unevenly. His response when asked if saw a problem was that no one had ever criticized what he’s done or told him it needs to be done a certain way.”
President and CEO of the Crossroads Regional Chamber of Commerce Sue Reed can relate.
“My first job, at the age of 16 was a hostess for a Golden Bear Restaurant in Tinley Park, Illinois,” she said. “My lesson learned was that the restaurant environment was not my forte! Although I loved working with the customers, I could never figure out how to seat people so one waitress wasn’t overloaded and another had no one in her section. I was fortunate in that the manager was very patient and provided as much training as possible – it just never clicked. He was very kind when he suggested that this was not my field, and we would need to part ways. So yes, I was fired from my first job. He did it in such a way it didn’t feel like I was fired. That stayed with me through my years, and I have tried to remember that experience when faced with similar situations.”
On the other hand, an early work experience can reshape preconceived notions about a young person’s career path, according to Bar Louie’s Merrillville General Manager Lester Young
“My first job was at 15 years old bussing tables in a restaurant where I worked my up from there – in the kitchen and then through management,” he said. “A lot of young people look at summer jobs as kind of a dead end thing. It’s called entry level for a reason – you start out and progress your way up - whether it’s your chosen career or not, it’s a way to learn responsibility and work ethic. To be honest, I thought I was only going to be at that restaurant for the summer – the big plan at the time was to earn enough money for a trip to Cedar Pointe. As it turned out, I ended up changing my college major from marketing to management because I discovered it was a good way to make a living. I learned that you always want to keep your eyes open and take advantage of opportunities as they come up.”
“What we’re really hoping is that when people think about their own first work experience, they will realize how more they got from it than just money in their pocket,” Kirkpatrick added. “We need to show young people that work is important, that they are important, and that they can learn something.”
Even people who follow a pre-destined career path have the opportunity to gain important insight for the future from a first job like City of Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.
“My very first job was as a part of Gary’s Manpower Summer Jobs Program. It involved outdoor beautification, cleaning lots and pulling weeds. It taught me the value of the youth being a force in working towards a clean community,” she said. “My first professional job was as a Deputy Prosecutor in the Lake County Prosecutors Office. It underscored my parents' early lessons on the importance of public service.”
Look for more people to share their “First Job” lessons in the Business section of The Times in future editions.