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What My First Job Taught Me

One of the rules in my family was that by the time we were 16, we got a job or our allowance stopped. Counter intuitive perhaps but the idea of more money or no money had me looking for something in the months before my 16th birthday.

Now that I’m a parent I’m beginning to wonder if I should encourage my kids to get work in their teen years. Reflecting back on my experience, these are some of the things I learned.

First Impressions Matter

My first job was with a restaurant chain. There were a number of other people from my high-school who worked at the same place. One of the rules was that we were not to eat or drink anything unless we’d paid for it and we were in the staff room. On the second day of my new job, one of the more popular girls from high-school asked me to hold a drink for her while she got something. What she got was the manager who found me standing there holding a drink I hadn’t paid for. I’m a rule follower by nature. I have a good work ethic. The manager didn’t know that. Even though I tried to explain what happened, she didn’t know me. I was given a formal warning. It took nearly a year for the manager to trust me and recognize I was not who she thought I was.

Work Hard but Set Limits

I worked at this restaurant chain for two years. I was working on average 28 hours a week, Monday – Friday from 5-9 pm and every Saturday from 7-3. Many weeks I had overtime hours. During the end of my time there, we were told that every high-school student had to do one closing a week on a school night, which meant getting home around 2 am. I was already having trouble keeping up with all my homework and working. There was no way I could pull off doing a close on a school night. I began looking for a new job and found a great one in a local mall that was only open in the evenings on Thursdays and Fridays until 9 pm and closed on Saturdays by 6 pm. I needed to set limits. If I didn’t there was no way I could get the grades I needed to get into university.

There is More to Life Than This

One of the most surprising parts of my first job was how many middle aged, intelligent people were working the same job. These were hardworking people who for whatever reason found themselves in their mid life wearing a uniform and following extremely simple directions to assemble food. I knew then and there that I was going to work hard at university so that I had options in my adult years.

Minimum Wage is Good for a Teenager Living With Their Parents

The money was great for me at the time. Twenty eight hours a week, at $5 something an hour in the mid 1980’s while living at home provided me with a good amount of spending money. I remember one woman I worked with. She had two jobs, a disabled husband and four kids. She was exhausted. Minimum wage, even with two jobs, was hardly enough to make ends meet. I didn’t want that life for myself. I recognized that post secondary education would be an investment in my future.

Getting a job in high-school was one of the best things I could have done. It gave me a taste for what I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life. It was extremely motivating for going to university so that I could work in a job that I enjoyed instead of just putting in the hours somewhere.

There is a debate among parents of teens. Should teens work while in school or should school and extra curricular activities be their work?

This is a decision for each family to make. I feel torn on the issue. If my kids are putting a lot of effort into their school work and involved in extra curricular activities, I’d like that to take priority. However, if they aren’t involved in anything extra curricular and have too much free time on their hands, a job will keep them busy, give them experience and give them a little extra spending money.

Did your parents encourage you to get a job when you were a teen? Will you make your teen get a job?

Kathryn has been a staff writer for MDJ since January 2009. During the day she works in an office. In her off hours, she volunteers as a financial coach helping ordinary Canadians with the basics of money management. Kathryn, along with her husband and two children live in Ontario.

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About the author: Kathryn has been a staff writer for MDJ since January 2009. During the day she works in an office. In her off hours, she volunteers as a financial coach helping ordinary Canadians with the basics of money management. Kathryn, along with her husband and two children live in Ontario.

{ 29 comments… add one }
  • Revanche February 15, 2010, 8:10 am

    My parents were pretty adamant that I concentrate on schoolwork during the year, but I managed to convince them to let me work during the summers for a few weeks during registration rush at a local college. I loved the paycheck, but it was minimal, especially in comparison to the experience of learning to work for an employer on their schedule and according to their priorities.

    During the summer of junior year, I got the notion that I should pay for all my luxuries during senior year since they were strictly social and therefore optional. It was at that point, working temporarily with the Census, I learned that mindnumbing work was not what I wanted, no matter how generous the pay.

    I’m pretty sure that I want my kids to learn the value of hard work and earning your own money in high school, but there will have to be a balance between the work and their schoolwork. School must always come first.

  • Future Money-Bags February 15, 2010, 8:51 am

    Good read – I can totally relate.

    I got my first first job on my paper route at the age of 9. I saved nearly $1000 by the age of 12, but it went to my family instead of myself. I was quite upset for a few years, but than I realized it was better spent that way!

    At 16 I got my first ‘real’ job, where I actually needed a SIN, doing on-call shifts, graveyard shifts, at the local grocery store. I hated every minute. And everyone else working there was in their 30’s, 40’s, and several in their 50’s… I could not believe this and did not understand how these people had the same jobs as me? (Sure they got paid $12-16/hour instead of 8, but shit)

    But believe it or not, this did not encourage me to go back to post-secondary. I don’t regret this now, and I do everything I can do make sure I never do. Now I’m in my early 20’s and I just got qualified for a mortgage nearly 10x my income. (No I don’t plan to get a mortgage that big, was just seeing what I could get approved for).

    This is my starting story!
    In conclusion: I used to think some people just couldnt make it in life, or weren’t meant to. But I than realized that every human being is capable of becoming anything they want, and this is not an age-old myth. Do you have to bust your ass off and work harder than 99% of the population to reach some high goals? Yes of course you do. But is it worth it? YES.
    You are qualified for anything, you just need to prove it to others.

  • TheDebtHawk.com February 15, 2010, 8:52 am

    I definitely think children need a good first job at least in the summers. I hope to teach my kids about the joys of entrepreneurship with these first jobs.

    I worked at McDonald’s for my first job. But, I always wished I was mowing lawns or doing something else more entrepreneurial. Some great jobs to teach kids about being an entrepreneur are lawn mowing, landscaping, painting, snow removal, house cleaning.

  • No Debt Guy February 15, 2010, 10:27 am

    Having a paper route at the age of 13 was an excellent learning tool for me. I think I originally did it out of nessessity as times were tight and if I wanted money I needed to earn it. It taught me a lot about work and collections, sales, etc.

    Where I did go wrong is when I finished high school I didn’t go to university because I was earning too much money delivering pizza. :) I did keep up with my work ethic and with some hard work and a little luck things did turn out good for me and I now consider myself fortunate for what I have accomplished.

  • Big Cajun Man February 15, 2010, 10:54 am

    I too worked from age 12 delivering papers, thenn delivering telephone books and finally loading trucks. This taught me that I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life and helped motivate me at University to keep going! Money part wasn’t that important, but seeing what crappy jobs there are out there, was important.

  • V. F. February 15, 2010, 12:30 pm

    My parents had a very school-first attitude, so I never had a job during the semester. In my opinion, this worked/was justifiable because I was willing to focus very seriously on school and extracurriculars instead of spending time being idle. I did work in the summers during high school, which was great experience for me, and I wish I had started summer jobs earlier on.

    However, I think they key point is that regardless of WHAT a kid is doing in high school, it should be such that an attitude of serious focus and hustle — not towards individual tasks, but towards life as a whole — is being instilled by his/her parents.

  • Ramona February 15, 2010, 1:06 pm

    My parents never encouraged or discouraged me from getting a job during high school – totally my decision. I did start work at a burger joint when I was 15, but I kept only minimal hours during the school year. At the time, it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with adults making their living cashiering or bussing tables.

    Fast forward 30 years – now I have a 16 year old son, and I am of the opinion that working while school is in session is not right. At 16, he is still a “kid”, and I want him to concentrate on school work, and have some free, fun time. As well, he is heavily involved part of the school year with some extra curriculars, which wouldn’t allow reasonable time for working. As a result we do give him an “allowance” which gives him spending money for things he wants. Since it isn’t a great deal, prioritizing purchases is necessary. I think my focus now is to help him understand that while money is necessary, it isn’t the absolute, and life shouldn’t be sacrificed just to make money. Am I right? I guess in about 10 years when he’s out on his own, I’ll know the answer.

  • jacqjolie February 15, 2010, 1:47 pm

    My oldest son worked throughout high school at the local Wendy’s and started working when he was 12 in the summers mowing boulevards and public areas for the town that we lived in. (He was a big kid and when they offered him the job, I don’t think they knew that he was that young.)

    We were going through quite a boom economically when he was working through HS and at one point, he was putting in at least 25 hours a week and going to school. I would tell him to tell his work place not to schedule him, but he had a hard time asserting himself and saying no. His grades definitely suffered, and I finally put my foot down and phoned the restaurant and told them he wouldn’t be in for the month of June while he was studying and writing his finals.

    The most important thing that the job has taught him came about because he became a shift supervisor at 16 y.o. He had always been unassertive but having to manage other kids and irate customers taught him management skills in the trenches that will be well worth it throughout his career.

    He’s also learned that not being a saving type of personality can really suck as he spent everything he made for the first few years on books, electronics and movies.

    At one point he was working two jobs, and when he was laid off from the one, he was fortunate enough to have built up a reputation of being a great worker, reliable and easy to get along with. That job taught him never to burn his bridges and that sometimes 90% of the job really is just showing up.

    Like you, he also learned that he doesn’t want to be a fast food employee for a career and is back in University working part-time.

  • Kathryn February 15, 2010, 2:17 pm

    For those who want their kids to put school first, will your teens be getting a job in the summer?

    Looking back I think I worked too much as a teen and could have done better academically if I’d had more time. I could have learned the same lessons with less time commitment. I like the idea of having them work in the summer but not during the school year.

  • Dana February 15, 2010, 2:44 pm

    The demands placed on students now seem very different than when I was young. My kids bring home a lot more homework than I remember having.
    There is also a lot more focus on learning independantly than I remember. Some concepts are only ‘introduced’ in the classroom and students are expected to grasp them through homework and assignments. Schools blame this on the ‘demanding curriculum’. One teacher told me that she feels she is ‘forcing curriculum on students who aren’t ready’. Keeping track of all the work they are expected to do is a part-time job for me and I am not the student. My kids aren’t even in high school yet!

    I use to have the mentality that teenagers should have jobs to help them transition to the ‘real world’, but if my children’s high school experience is as demanding as their elementary experience has been, we will have to re-think our position.

  • Josh Chandler February 15, 2010, 5:37 pm

    I personally find your story deeply inspiring. I’ve just recently left college in the UK, and I’m 19 years old. I’ve certainly enjoyed the freedom of being my own person, and setting out my future.

    However, more and more I appreciate just how much commitment it takes to succeed, and reading your post certainly helped put things into perspective for me. :)

  • guinness416 February 15, 2010, 6:49 pm

    My folks had exactly the same attitude as yours (and my mum is a teacher). It was nothing but beneficial for me to work as a teen.

    My first job (apart from babysitting and things) was in a nightclub as a coat check person. I was about 15 and one of my many duties was occasionally cleaning out the washrooms – which, as this was in a nightclub, could be fairly nasty to say the least :) This taught me I’m never too “good” or “educated” for ANY tasks or job, something I think some of my acquaintances should have learned early in life! The job also led to me learning to bartend which is a valuable skill and one which made me a lot of money over my college career. It was also enormous fun.

    I also credit my mindfulness and care around money to those early jobs. Nothing like making three pounds an hour to make you reluctant to waste your wages.

  • Ms Save Money February 15, 2010, 9:27 pm

    I started working at age 15 – at first it was just for the summers.

    But in my senior year I worked during the school year so that I could save up money to buy my first car.

    When I was able to save enough money to buy my first car (acura integra) I was really proud of myself.

    But looking back – I wished I hadn’t worked so much because I definitely could have used that time to learn a new language or do better in school.

    However, I guess I can’t complain much because I came from a poor family. So I guess you gain some things and lose other things.

  • Plan B Economics February 15, 2010, 9:48 pm

    My first job taught me that I better get an education, because flipping burgers for minimum wage wasn’t a life I liked.

    Good lesson for any teenager.

  • PD February 15, 2010, 10:27 pm

    My first job was babysitting. I did it within my own neighbourhood and I was on call with the city.

    It became tremendously clear why some parents needed to call the city to find a babysitter. No one in their own neighbourhood wanted to deal with their children. I was absolutely floored at some of the “rules” or lack of rules some of these children had.

    What did I learn? To be discerning as to who I chose to work for. If the parent was trying their best and treated me respectfully I went back even if the child was a brat. It felt like to some degree I was making a difference. If the parents were rude, cheap in their pay, and treated me like a servant I did not return.

    I never worked during the school year, except babysitting and only on weekends. I was heavily involved in extra curricular activities and homework was a necessity for me as high school marks did not come easy.

    Now, as a teacher, I highly recommend summer and weekend jobs (minimal hours) only. High School students have to meet so many volunteer hours, anyway, so why not let your child have a taste of working voluntarily, hanging out with well chosen friends, and completing their homework. There is lots of time for work full time as adults.

  • zud February 16, 2010, 12:04 am

    i was a major bookworm who yearned for a job like all the cool kids. unfortunately my personality and sheltered upbringing made my first job quite traumatic. working at a local discount department store left me in tears when i had to deal with irritated customers and when my cash register wouldn’t tally up.

    make sure your kids have the maturity to hold down a job. i obviously wasn’t ready.

  • youngandthrifty February 16, 2010, 4:25 am

    28 hours a week while going to highschool is a bit much! I guess you really learn to prioritize and not “slack off” from not doing your homework because there isn’t much time otherwise.

    I started working at the age of 14, a month before I turned 15. It was the summer and I went door to door canvassing for a Charity Children’s group. I learned a lot that summer- I learned to let things roll off my back and not take things too seriously (for example, when I rung the bell one time- I know that the lady behind the door purposely turned the hose on me! I got hosed!).

    I also learned that people can be very generous, especially when they may seem like they don’t have very much. I went canvassing through all different neighbourhoods (huge sprawling mansions to small houses).

    I learned that there are administrative costs to charities! (So check their pie chart next time you donate!)

  • Ramona February 16, 2010, 9:34 am

    Hi Kathryn:

    Summer work for my 16 year old is fine. He worked for 4 weeks full time last year in a Production facility. It was terrific experience for him – I believe he began to understand the concept of trading time for money. (Why not become as educated as possible and trade that time for a higher hourly wage?)

  • Krista February 16, 2010, 12:42 pm

    I don’t think it should be a question of working or not. I think it should be a question of contributing to something and learning committment. The lessons people learn from jobs can be learned in a lot of other venues.

    Teenagers should be expected to do something outside of class – be it an extracurricular, a volunteer job, or paid work. But high school is one of the only times in our lives that we have the opportunity to explore activities that we enjoy and are good at, without having to worry about whether they pay enough. And I think figuring out what it is you actually want to do is every bit as worthwhile as learning how much effort it takes to pull in minimum wage.

  • Scott February 16, 2010, 12:53 pm

    @ 2. Future Money-Bags: “In conclusion: I used to think some people just couldnt make it in life, or weren’t meant to. But I than [sic] realized that every human being is capable of becoming anything they want, and this is not an age-old myth. You are qualified for anything, you just need to prove it to others.”

    Your first assumption was correct; your last, not so much. I would doubt any of us are qualified to be particle physicists or used car salespeople. Think bell-curve.

    As for “old” people doing brainless/laborious jobs…there are far, far worse evils in the world. And, you have no idea as to WHY that person is actually doing said job. Perhaps that 40-something waitress actually loves her job because it’s high energy, keeps her fit, and she gets to interact with people all day long (plus all those un-taxed cash tips!).

    Not everyone in life is here just to make reams of money. If that were the case, we would all be running around in suits trying to sell each other stuff. If we didn’t have all those people doing all that stuff, life would be very different. Think of a life with NO art of any kind whatsoever.

    Besides that, think of how our society would operate if you removed the massive portion of “low paying” jobs and the people doing them. Basically, you would have no food or shelter and a whole lotta other stuff. Think about it. Think of one of the most needed links in society — the truck driver. Would you rather have some 17-year old kid driving that semi truck full of produce across the country, or someone who has been doing it for 20 years? (Me, neither — I’d rather buy local! ha ha).

    A summary of my “menial” job: service industry, earn above the federal and prov. income, work 30-33 hours/week, weekends and stats off, 6 weeks holidays, will retire when I’m 55 with plump pension (thanks govie!).

    THAT is why I do a brainless/soulless job. I don’t love the job, but I do love what I get in return. The low hours give me ample time to pursue and engage in a lot of other activities that do stimulate my brain, soul, and bank account.

    My first job was a paper route. What it taught me was I am not a morning person.

    What my last job is teaching me is there is a balance and a sacrifice to everything.

  • Austin February 16, 2010, 11:29 pm

    It’s so sad when you see those middle-aged people who just never pushed themselves to be a little better. If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.

    Austin @ Foreigner’s Finances

  • Scott February 17, 2010, 12:57 am

    A little better than what?

  • Austin February 17, 2010, 1:07 am

    A little better than the bare minimum. To work somewhere where they are challenged and use their skills.

  • youngandthrifty February 17, 2010, 1:14 am

    @Austin
    Sometimes there are middle aged people who are immigrants and the government and/or employers stop them from advancing. They are not acknowledged for their experience (be it engineering, medicine, architects) from overseas because they have worse language skills than people from Canada.

    The Canadian government makes all these hoops for immigrants to jump over before they come here (Points system) and when they do, they are asked to do unskilled jobs.

    Like they say, “the best place to have a heart attack is in a taxi cab”.
    because the taxi driver was probably a cardiologist from his home country.

  • Austin February 17, 2010, 1:43 am

    @youngandthrifty

    Great point.

  • Scott February 17, 2010, 3:37 am

    @Austin: great to be young, ain’t it!

    @young: I was thinking just that point. As a matter of fact, I do know a medical doctor who immigrated to Canada from Dubai because he wanted a better/safer life for his children. He found he could either spend 6 years in school “upgrading” his medical skills and knowledge to Canadian standards (I was unaware Dubai was so Third World), or he could get a “real” job. So, he opened up a corner store. And that is what he does. It does not challenge him mentally and it requires none of his educated skills. He does it to better his family. I’ve talked with him a few times and he is one of the truest people I know.

  • youngandthrifty February 18, 2010, 1:24 am

    @Scott LOL “I was unaware Dubai was so Third World”. Wow, even Dubai eh? Really, I think if I spent already a multitude of years on my degree and moved somewhere else for my future children, and was asked to spend 6 years in school upgrading, I think I would opt for a corner store job too. I mean, who is going to support the family in the six years of schooling?

    I hear that the system may be changing soon.

  • Scott February 18, 2010, 12:30 pm

    “Soon” in a bureaucratic timeline is still a life time.

    He left Dubai because he didn’t want his children to grow up in that kind of “scary” (his descriptive) religious/political environment (he emigrated in the ’70’s).

    I have to wonder if his children will seek to “push themselves to be a little better” than dear old corner store dad? I think he provides a different kind of motivation for them.

    Or you could grow up in India, still on operating on the caste system. So you don’t get a choice of “first job”, you simply take over from your parents (and hope you were born near the top!).

  • Alex October 1, 2014, 11:58 pm

    Nobody ever made me work as a kid or in high school or even in university. We had to do an internship at university and the company wanted me to stay on during the semester, so I did (10 hours per week on average or however more I wanted). I’m a software developer and I was doing computer and network administration for them. After that I worked part time at the university but really just because I was asked if I would help out and it was an interesting subject and it would pay about as much as the other job so I switched.

    Now I’m 30 something and have two small kids and I’m contemplating things because I stumbled upon this old post :) I’ve never had one of those minimum wage teen jobs. I’m not so sure that it’s necessary to do that. Sure it might help some people “learn how to work” but for myself I don’t see how it would have helped. I probably would’ve just hated it. I knew exactly what I wanted to study at University and what kind of job I wanted after that and I didn’t need a shit job to make me want that.

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