When I was 17, I spent the summer before college dishing out frozen happiness at Freckles Frozen Custard in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The store was a drive-thru and counter-only type that drew lines on sweaty Saturday nights, but little action during the rest of the week. My manager was a pregnant woman who took a lot of smoke breaks, and my fellow colleagues were all there either to save up for a car, or to please parents who’d forced them into the role in the name of discipline and personal responsibility.
As someone eager to leave high school behind, get to college, and get into the meat of adulthood (ha), I had little use for or interest in my high school summer job. And I took issue with the extra five pounds that had taken up residence around my thighs since I started the job (though, evidently, not with the free frozen custard that landed them there). But looking back on it, the gig might’ve taught me more about my future career than I realized. In fact, it might’ve even helped me land a job or two.
Don’t believe me? Consider these six ways summer jobs prepare you for a career.
1. They teach you about hierarchical structure.
One of the most important things I learned from my summer job was how (and why) power gets distributed throughout a work hierarchy. The quickest way to help a young person understand the concept of a work structure is to put them smack dab in the middle of a restaurant work chain, where power is increased incrementally alongside responsibility. Even though it’s small, there’s a lot of empowerment bound up in getting a promotion — even if that just means going from ice-cream scooper to cashier.
2. They impart ownership.
In that same vein, a summer job is a great way to learn about leadership and seeing something through from start to finish. Those napkin holders aren’t going to stock themselves, and let’s be real: who doesn’t feel a little thrill after being given a set of keys to the business? Menial tasks like sweeping under tables, filling salt shakers, bagging leaves and organizing library stacks can easily translate into personal pride — especially for a young person itching to be taken seriously. Even if it seems disconnected from the work you’re angling for down the line, a summer job is like a crash course in one reality that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon: it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
3. They show you how to work well with your peers.
Working for someone your own age or younger is a simple fact of life, and is bound to come up at some point. Summer jobs are great for training us to recognize that authority comes in all shapes, sizes and ages, and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to offer mutual respect regardless of work level or position. Plus, you’re likely to get a lot further in your career if you can play well with others, and figure out how to be an excellent hang.
4. They offer honest work.
Weeding flower beds, walking dogs, babysitting, and mowing lawns might not be the most glamorous work out there, but they’re certainly character building. Jobs like these often foster entrepreneurial skills, too — everything from pitching a product, delivering on time, and recruiting new clients. What’s better than that?
5. They teach you about workflow.
Anyone who’s ever waited tables understands what the lunch rush, Friday night rush, and Sunday morning after-church rush does to output. A bottleneck doesn’t just slow the flow of work — it puts more pressure on it as it’s coming out. Clear the bottleneck, and you can produce at a higher volume. A summer job can be great for introducing young people to the concepts of workflow, people operations, project management, logic systems and efficiency. To all those coming up through the summer-job ranks: always be looking for ways to keep your workflow moving and distributed evenly. If you can train yourself to think this way, you’ll be able to lean on the skill for years to come.
6. They teach you how to fold 20 pizza boxes in 60 seconds.
And other useless party tricks you’ll probably never use again, but be glad you have. Truth be told, there’s something powerful in learning how to master your situation — even if it’s only temporary. While you probably won’t be adding Professional Box Folder to your resume anytime soon, don’t underestimate the power of a position that teaches you how to rise to a challenge and meet it.
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