Column: Don’t discount your first job experience

By Pamela Nisivaco

Sometimes great advice takes a lifetime of searching before it can be found. Truly great advice requires a particular person and the right situation. To find great advice, however, means being a great listener.

In high school, a panel of career women came to speak about their experiences in their professions and how all of the young women (I went to an all-girls Catholic high school) sitting before them could someday fulfill similar career dreams.

Normally, these panels meant a chance for me to catch up on sleep. This panel was different. There was one woman who talked about the method behind her success rather than speaking about how successful she was. She had started at the bottom of her father’s company, Fox Vending, which filled all the vending machines at our school, and worked her way to the top.

One thing I will never forget her saying was the importance of a first job as a teenager. No matter where you start — bagging groceries, cleaning toilets, or sweeping hair at a salon – your first job is what gives you the initial incentive to keep working toward your goals, she said. This was great advice and I decided to follow it.

I wanted to throw up as I prepared for my first day at my first job. While driving to DeJay’s Ace Hardware the only thought rushing through my mind was how much I didn’t know about a hardware store. OK, so I was only going to be the cashier, but I didn’t even know how to use a cash register.

I wore my torn pair of jeans and a white T-shirt. Over the T-shirt was a neatly buttoned collared shirt, tucked in of course, with the Ace logo embroidered on the right side. The shirt’s gray and white stripes made my uniform look more like prison garb. To complete the appearance of employee perfection I pinned my name tag on the left side of my shirt.

Looking back on my first few hours working at my first job, I realize it was one of the best experiences of my life. Sure, the pay was minimum wage, the uniform hideous and the discount inadequate, but working meant money, and as a 16-year-old high school student money was everything.

Almost everyone has tales, both horrifying and humorous, about their first job. It is a rite of passage that is often unforgettable. Every time I complained about the horrors of the hardware store I remember my mom telling me about one of her first jobs at a nursing home, wiping old people’s butts all day. Fine, Ace was not that bad, I suppose.

In fact, Ace was my first real taste of independence. I had my own money to buy my own things. Not always having to rely on my parents was something I got used to quickly. The people I worked with were fun and quirky, and often made for some great stories to tell at lunch the next day.

No, Ace was not always the best place to work. There were days when people made me, an ‘A’ student, feel like the dumbest person in the world. I still remember one man in particular who brought me to tears because I did not yet know how to ring up his screen repair ticket, and as I desperately tried calling a manager for help I realized about the fifth try that my radio and headset were not working. The man asked me if I knew how to do anything right then stormed to the back of the store, retrieved his screen and left with a grunt at me on the way out. And yet, all the memories, good and bad, have a special place in my heart.

Without a first job, a first taste at what it felt like to work hard and earn some money, I would not have had the incentive to work my way up and achieve bigger and better career goals. For the seniors, as you prepare to graduate in May and officially begin your careers, I hope the memories and lessons learned from your first jobs are things that will help you on your path. For those of you, like me, who still have a few years before that whole career thing, go get a minimum wage job and have some fun. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a career out of it.