Making sandwiches at a deli counter. Picking up trash on a beach. Getting up at 5 a.m. to work in a doughnut shop. What sort of ambitious teenager would settle for such tedious, grotty jobs?
Future leaders, that’s who.
If there’s one steady pattern that defines top entrepreneurs’ coming of age, it’s their eagerness to start working part-time jobs as teenagers, in practically any setting. They put up with low pay, low status — and genuinely jarring social environments — because it’s deeply fulfilling to do something the world needs, while getting paid for it. Along the way, no matter how humble the setting, these teens learn a lot about how to survive and thrive in the adult world.
Let’s take a look at a few timeless examples, and then step back to analyze the broader lessons for anyone thinking about how teens should spend their summers.
When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was 16, he wasn’t preparing slide decks about the future of e-commerce. He was working a summer job at McDonald’s, learning how to crack eggs with one hand. You can learn about his adventures in this book, in which the future billionaire shares a revealing story.
“My favorite shift was Saturday morning,” modern-day Bezos told author Cody Teets. “I would get a big bowl and crack 300 eggs in it.” Not 20 eggs. Not 50 eggs. When you’re Jeff Bezos, the desire to do things on a giant scale is irrepressible.
Or consider Angela Mader‘s earliest encounters with the world of work. In the grown-up world, you’ll know her as the founder of Fitlosophy, which makes healthy living products such as fitness journals. During her school years, though, she worked in her father’s donut shop, absorbing vital lessons about making quality products and connecting with customers. (You can read more about her journey — and similar first jobs for other female entrepreneurs — in this fascinating Bustle article by Sarah Fielding.)
The latest example to catch my eye is in Christine Lagorio-Chafkin‘s new book about Reddit’s emergence as one of the world’s most popular digital properties. In the first chapter, we meet Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, in his high school years, hawking kids’ software in a CompUSA store.
It sounds like a miserable job. Ohanian is tasked with doing a half-hour sales pitch, again and again, throughout the course of the day. He’s told to start afresh even if there’s no one in his section of the store, just to create a sense of excitement about the product. And yet — it turns out to be a diabolically good way for Ohanian to hone the optimism and confidence needed to make much bigger pitches as an adult. His later verdict on the job: “It was wonderful.”
Collect enough of these stories, and you start to see patterns. Front-line jobs for teenagers may use only 10% of their IQ. We aren’t talking about internships at the State Department. Yet the everyday challenges of working in retail — or maintenance — or anything, really, are fine ways to test 110% of teens’ emotional intelligence, or EQ. These settings are uniquely good places to learn how to connect with customers, how to stand up for yourself without being obnoxious, and how to get along with bosses who might or might not have your best interests at heart.
In Indianapolis, Dominique Franklin is the program director of TeenWorks, which arranges summer jobs for about 200 Indiana teens, as well as additional year-around work opportunities. Jobs typically pay $8 an hour; they put teens to work on various outdoor landscaping and beautification projects. It’s not glamorous stuff. But when I asked Franklin how these jobs impact students’ futures, her list of benefits is quite spectacular.
“It’s hard work, but it builds a sense of pride,” she says. “Students learn punctuality. They learn about paying attention to details, and about taking initiative. We work on team-building, self-confidence and giving each other praise.” It’s interesting that Franklin previously worked as a public school administrator. She switched to TeenWorks because she felt that in this role, she could have a bigger impact on teens’ development.
It’s a bit troubling to see the notion of a teenage summer job — which used to be pervasive in the United States — is fading away. A Pew Research Center study last year found that only 35% of people age 16 to 19 work in classic, paid summer jobs. (Back in 2000, more than half did.) More teens take summer classes now; some can’t find any work at all; others opt for unpaid internships that offer prestige instead of dollars.
Are old-style summer jobs fading from sight? Not really. The corner store may not be hiring, but Doordash is. It’s quite amazing, too, how many small businesses need help reworking their websites or establishing a social-media presence. The opportunities for high-school and college-age digital natives to pick up some summer spending money are considerable.
And if you’re wondering what employers think of college-age candidates with front-line work experience, here’s a reason to smile. Last year, I built a small pilot project here at LinkedIn, called #AceTheInterview, in which college students were invited to create short, 60-second videos that highlighted their successes in areas such as showing initiative or promoting teamwork. We then showed these videos to recruiters at top-tier employers such as Disney and Amazon, asking them for feedback.
What kinds of stories impressed the big-league recruiters the most? Sure enough, the accounts of keeping order at Chuck E. Cheese (not easy!) or independently learning the expertise needed to staff different departments of a hardware store were the ones that employers liked. There are lots of other ways for career starters to establish their intellects. But when it comes to projecting leadership, adaptability, empathy, teamwork and other universal skills, even the humblest summer jobs can become lifelong assets.
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