When I was in high school, I was one of the few lucky students to take part in an experimental “school within a school” program. Not unlike different major programs in college, my school district decided it might be a good idea to give 11-12th graders career-centric, college curriculum inspired experience in the field of their choice (i.e. health care and social services, business, arts, etc.)
As a student of the “School of Business,” I was lucky enough to have specialized training in disciplines most high school students won’t encounter unless they specifically seek them out—specifically, skills like web design, tax preparation, financial planning, marketing and business presentations.
Because we were so advanced in our studies (but not in actual practice, because most of us didn’t have “real” jobs at that point), it seemed almost laughable when our teachers suggested a week long role-playing session to teach us how to behave during a job interview. Obviously, most of us thought we knew how to be polite and answer questions about ourselves, so not many of us took this activity very seriously. Especially when we discovered that instead of faux interviewing for lofty future “career” type jobs, we’d be pretending to seek positions as Starbucks baristas and American Eagle retail jockeys.
Imagine our surprise when we showed up that day for school, dressed to the nines, and found actual Starbucks and American Eagle employees from the local mall ready to grill us. One AE guy, who was probably in his early twenties, asked us to do an impression of an eagle’s proud, majestic cry. Another made us demonstrate how to properly fold a pair of jeans without showing the inseam. Confident in my own abilities to create intelligent responses with little or no preparation—or, in less professional terms, “BS like a champ”—I found myself completely flummoxed by the Starbucks manager who asked me to recite the history of Starbucks, describe where coffee beans come from, and explain the difference between French roast and a house blend. The best part was, these people weren’t trolling us because we were high school students. All of these interview questions were completely standard for the companies they represented.
I later learned this through personal experience (in a non-mock setting) when I attended a group interview for a position as a seasonal worker at Victoria’s Secret. I was 18, and I’d worked enough “real” jobs and internships by that point, I considered myself a pro interviewee. My resume was spotless, if a little bare. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I thought I’d be head and shoulders above the other candidates, regardless of the fact that I’d never worked retail before. I was an excellent student, at a top university, and I had a lot of really impressive qualifications. How hard could it be?
In the end, I lasted at that job less than a month. Because, while I’d somehow managed to survive the Hunger Games style group interview, as it turned out I couldn’t handle the daily grind of restocking bras until three in the morning just to take home a paycheck that barely supplemented my two other jobs, and only gave me a 10% discount to boot. To those of you who have managed to survive—and even thrive—in the retail environment, I mean no disrespect. In fact, I salute you. It takes a sincerely tough, hard working and humble person to be able to put up with the kind of things retail workers experience on a daily basis—constantly rearranging artful displays, only to have them wrecked and re-wrecked dozens of times, negotiating returns on items clearly worn, marking prices up and down constantly by hand—not to mention the torture these poor people often endure at the hands of irate holiday shoppers during door-buster sales. If you can do all that with a smile, I’m even more impressed. And more than that, I would definitely consider hiring you on those grounds alone.
Which brings me to the central point of this article: it’s TOUGHER to survive, let alone succeed at the bottom than it is at the middle, or even the top.
I wasn’t able to carve a career out of my humble minimum wage origins, as some people have quite admirably done, but I did spend more than seven years as a server at various restaurants, working my way through undergrad and post-grad student loan repayment on tips and a measly $2.13 an hour—which barely covered income taxes, most of the time. Though I haven’t picked up a ticket book in years, I still consider those years as some of the best training I ever received in terms of life lessons and career experience.
Let me tell you why:
1. Interview Skills
I’m not sure why, but entry level and minimum wage jobs seem to have more difficult and unpredictable interviewing techniques. Whether it’s the strange dynamic of a group interview, or an off-the-wall question thrown in there to make you feel uncomfortable and see how you react, or the occasionally bizarre tactic designed to see how far you’ll go to get the job (such as Red Robin’s former “wear a costume to the interview” rule, or ColdStone Creamery’s “sing and dance” portion of their standard group interview.) Honestly, I would advocate for parents forcing their high school students to at least attend 3-4 of these types of interviews, even if they don’t want the job. Just to see how they fare.
2. People Skills (aka Grace and Professionalism Under Pressure)
Working in a minimum wage, service industry position is the best way to learn how to deal with people. Hands down. All types of people. Polite people, rude people, introverts, extroverts, elderly people and children, wealthy people and penny pinchers alike. Being in some way subservient to other people is like looking through a special filter that allows you to see the true extremes of human nature. I once served a woman who started crying in the middle of her breakfast omelet, and it wasn’t until I’d kindly interrogated her for five minutes before she admitted that her omelet was supposed to have cheese on it, but she was too shy to correct the mistake and felt guilty for even telling me about it. Then, there was the guy who screamed at me for about ten minutes straight, and demanded to speak with my manager, because we were out of Diet Pepsi, and didn’t I know that this was America? If you can learn to truly understand and help these kinds of people—not just put up with them—while maintaining a professional and polite attitude, you’re basically on your way to becoming management material. No matter what career path you choose to end up in. As long as there’s people to be dealt with, these lessons can be applied universally.
You will never be as grateful, or as careful, with your paycheck as you are when you’re making just enough to clear the poverty line. I don’t care if you’ve been living off student loans, or getting an allowance from the time you were five. There’s nothing like realizing that every hour you work has a price tag, to make you realize the value of every cent you spend. For me, it wasn’t until I’d gotten my first job that I started to equate a trip to the movie theater with two hours of scooping ice cream. Later, it was that pair of Steve Madden boots I really wanted, but which cost about three lunch shifts to buy. Nothing puts budgeting into perspective like trading your life away in hourly increments—especially when you see your paycheck, and realize how much of what you earn is going to taxes.
Some economists say that the youth of America are “too proud” to work minimum wage, and that’s why we’re having the nationwide employment issues we’re having. I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on this debate, at least not on a sociological scale. But I will say that if those economists are correct, the youth of America might want to rethink their position.
True, you might not be very well treated, and you might not make very much money, but starting from the bottom and working your way up is an investment in your future success. So what if you have to wear a pirate costume, or sing an embarrassing song for your tips? You can always laugh about those parts later (or in my case, use them as fun anecdotes for an article about career building).