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Life Lessons From a Summer Job

Posted on 05/30/2019, by Dr. Ellen Fithian to Parents of 7th and 8th Graders, Parents of 9th Graders, Parents of 10th Graders, Parents of 11th Graders, Parents of 12th Graders (0 comments)

With summer approaching, many families are weighing the options for their teenagers. Educational opportunities abound; your teen could learn Chinese, explore the Galapagos, hone his tennis serve or write a play, but in my view an invaluable educational opportunity that is often overlooked is the School of Work.

Looking back on my own workplace education, one woman stands out as my most valuable professor. I’ll call her Belinda Brio, sole proprietor of a small office temp agency near my home. I met her at the beginning of a summer in which I was hoping to trade my typing skills for the next year’s spending money. Long before the Internet and cell phones existed, it was customary to simply make the rounds of temporary agencies by foot and offer your services. Belinda’s was my first stop.

Her assistant administered a short battery of tests covering typing, basic grammar and math, and then ushered me into Belinda’s office.  After glancing at my test results and eliciting my educational and employment history, Belinda announced that she had a job for me starting the next day.

Without further ado, she dialed my future boss, the owner of a machine shop seeking a summer replacement for his secretary.

“I’ve got just the girl for you,” she began. She listened to his response and asked me whether I knew shorthand. I shook my head no.

“She has a fast longhand,” she told him. He asked whether I did statistical typing and she relayed the question to me.  I shook my head again, more emphatically.

“Absolutely,” she said and promised him I’d be there the next morning.

“What am I going to do when he asks me to take shorthand and do statistical typing?” I sputtered the minute she hung up the phone.

She waved away my concern with a quick flick of the wrist. “Trust me, you’ll be fine.”

The next day I reported for my first day of work. My office, a grimy cubicle off a large garage-like machine shop, housed a file cabinet, a desk chair and a large metal desk graced by an electric typewriter. My only co-workers were the machinists and my boss, the Elmer Fudd look-alike who owned the shop.

Shortly after I’d settled in he asked me to come into his office. He wanted to dictate a letter notifying a supplier that he was returning a defective piece of equipment. Here was where my fast longhand would be tested.  He dictated a few sentences, asked to hear what he’d said, changed a few words around and then decided to start from the beginning again. After several revisions, I volunteered to draft a letter for his approval and he accepted.

The larger part of my job consisted of typing invoices for machine parts, each of which was described by a seemingly random sequence of eight to ten numbers and letters. This was the statistical typing required. Worst of all, I was required to make four copies of each invoice. In those days, when typewriters had not yet evolved into word processors and photocopiers were a rare species of office equipment, making four copies of an invoice meant placing four pieces of carbon paper behind the original. To correct an error, you had to unfurl all five pieces of paper off the typewriter roller, erase the error, roll the papers back into place and attempt to retype the new character in exactly the same place as the erased one. I ground out my invoices dutifully, but by the end of the second day, I knew that absent a grandmother needing life-saving surgery, I could not force myself to spend an entire summer there. Late in the afternoon I called Belinda to plead for a transfer to a different assignment.

“Sorry,” she said, “but I can’t do it. You’re the third girl I’ve sent there. He likes you, and if you leave I’ll lose the account.”

I told her I'd go back but inwardly resolved to escape to a different job through another agency. On my lunch hour the next day I found one starting the following week.  So far so good, but now I had to break the news to Belinda. I dreaded her response. Would she be hurt, angry disappointed?  Scenarios of all her possible reactions played out in my head, and none of them was good. Finally I steeled myself to call and tell her that I had accepted a job with another agency.

"How much are they paying you?” she asked.

“Eight dollars an hour.” 

“I’ll pay you ten to stay,” she countered.

“I’m sorry. It’s not the money. I just can’t face working at the machine shop all summer ,” I said, and braced myself. Here was where she would bewail her disappointment, curse me for my ingratitude, swear she’d see to it that I’d never work in a Westchester office temp agency again.

“Well then, if that’s your final decision, good luck” she said pleasantly, adding, “and try me again next summer.”

I hung up, stupefied. She hadn’t been hurt or disappointed or angry. I sat and puzzled over what had happened until I finally figured it out. Her refusal to transfer me hadn’t been personal - just a dispassionate calculation that doing so would cost her a client – and neither was my finding a more appealing job. Since we had made no long-term commitment to each other, each of us had felt free to act in her own best interest. For that summer, our individual interests were at odds, but there was no reason for either of us to harbor animosity. It was just business.

I spent several summers during high school and college working as an office temp, and looking back on those times, I regard them as some of the most valuable educational experiences of my life. I began to see money in a whole new light; from the time I started working, I found myself mentally transforming the price of every potential purchase into the number of hours of typing it would cost me. Even more significant, viewing the world from my humble desk in the typing pool gave me an enduring respect for the dignity of work, however unassuming. So as you weigh the myriad enrichment choices for your teen this summer, don't overlook the option of an old-fashioned, garden variety summer job.

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Posted on 05/30/2019, by Dr. Ellen Fithian (0 comments)




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