Learning on the job
It was a long road from Baskin-Robbins to the Oval Office for President Obama, who was recently reminiscing about his first job, scooping ice cream. Despite the stress on his wrists, he learned valuable lessons about hard work and responsibility. Dealing with customers can be a learning experience as grueling as dealing with Democrats and Republicans.
Obama made the comments in a LinkedIn essay that was used to launch a summer project to help teenagers find work. Kids learn about life from their first job ... the good, the bad and the ugly, but mostly the ugly.
"Scooping ice cream is tougher than it looks," the President wrote. "Rows and rows of rock-hard ice cream can be brutal on the wrists. ... I was less interested in what the job meant for my future and more concerned about what it meant for my jump shot."
I can still remember my first job at 13. I was a budding landscaper, weeding, raking, mowing and tending the gardens of our neighbor for $1 an hour. There was no shortage of work, and every day after school she had something new for me to do.
That job transformed me. I became an expert on horticulture overnight, not to mention a big spender. For the first time in my life I had cold hard cash, which I spent as soon as I made it on my stamp collection and an occasional pack of Marlboros.
As my mother would say, “That money burns a hole in your pocket.” Yes, a little cash in a kid’s pocket can be a dangerous thing, and I loved to live dangerously.
Two years later, I left that job behind in my pursuit of upward mobility and went to work at Iannucci and Sons, Mason Contractors. It certainly helped that my cousin Larry ran the show. Isn’t that what relatives are for — to give you a job?
I was a “mason’s assistant,” which is a fancy term for laborer. On my resume, I described the job as “mason’s special assistant.” My next promotion would have been to “mason’s executive assistant.”
That job made me the most popular guy in high school because I was making $5 an hour, which paid for the burgers and cokes and car insurance for my Pontiac LeMans. Plus, when Larry needed another “warm body,” as he called them, I brought along my friends. It was real work, none of that scooping ice cream stuff. We carried bricks and cement blocks and pails of mortar up the ladder, and Larry made sure he worked every penny of that $5 out of us.
With all his bravado, he was sort of the Donald Trump of the bricklayer business, and like Trump, he was known for sayings that he repeated so often I could hear them in my sleep. It was the wisdom of a working man like "He who hesitates is lost," "It's a pool of blood," and "We’re not the best, but we’re better than the rest.”
This was my introduction to the American workplace. A more colorful cast of characters I have yet to meet. Besides learning how to mix mortar, I learned to smoke and drink and swear, and it took me years to get rid of those bad habits.
That job and several others in my teenage years taught me a lesson, once propounded by JFK, that life is not fair. I learned some guys got paid more for doing less. I learned the boss is always right even when he's wrong. I learned some people are downright creepy and the best thing to do is avoid them, unless they go into politics and you can’t get rid of them. I also learned that a lot of men and women have to work hard to make an honest living, while others hardly work and make a lucrative dishonest living.
A few years later, I graduated from college with a fancy degree and honors but couldn't find a job, so Larry took me back. Throughout my career I remembered that act of kindness and always hired back guys when they were down on their luck, even if they’d thumbed their noses at me when they quit the first time. Never burn your bridges when you leave a job, even if it’s the White House.
The President was right: Your first job is a preview of things to come. But to my thinking it’s not your first job you have to worry about. It’s your last job. Many people will find themselves crawling to the finish line and some will stop crawling before they reach the finish line. Only the strong survive. (I think Larry said that.)