The life-changing skills you learn at a summer job

The minimum-wage earnings are just the cherry on top.
The minimum-wage earnings are just the cherry on top.
Image: Reuters/Max Rossi
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Summer jobs stick with you. It’s been more than a decade since I worked as a counselor at a sleepaway camp in northern Michigan. But I still dream about the job all the time: The shock of plunging into the chilly, algae-covered lake; tossing bananas and chocolate wrapped in tinfoil into the bonfire; bawling over a 10-year-old’s performance as Wilbur the pig in a production of Charlotte’s Web. (What can I say? She was really good.)

The job wasn’t always fun. I had to plunge toilets and change sheets and break up burgeoning middle-school cliques, and every year campers absolutely refused to be quiet during quiet time, when all I wanted was to take a nap. Looking back, I’m grateful for the parts of the job that I disliked as much as the parts that were straight out of a teen movie. That early gig taught me how to deal with conflict and help make sure that groups run smoothly, and it was an early introduction to the idea that a big part of being an adult would be dealing with the messiness—real and metaphorical—of other people.

For many of today’s young Americans, such summer jobs are increasingly a thing of the past. The US teen labor force participation rate has steadily declined over the past couple decades. According to a July 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, only 35% of American teens between the ages of 16 and 19 had a job last summer, down from 51.7% in 2000. That’s partly because there are fewer openings for entry-level, low-skill jobs. But it’s also because many teens are busy padding their college applications with unpaid internships, community service, or summer academic enrichment programs.

That’s a shame: As Jenny Anderson has written for Quartz, universities are far more likely to be impressed by a stint at a hot-dog stand than eight weeks at coding camp. After all, holding down a summer job develops a sense of responsibility in young people, teaching them how to work on a team, empathize with others, and simply show up on time—and often times instills a lifelong appreciation for just how hard service work truly is.

To prove that point, I decided to ask my Quartz colleagues about their most memorable summer jobs, and what they learned from them. Here are the skills we took away from our past gigs—many of which are just as valuable for adults as they are for teenagers.

How to clean a floor

In the summers of 1996, 1997, and 1998, I worked at a busy beachside Jamba Juice in southern California. This is where I learned to clean a floor. In the years since, all of the places I have lived and many of the places I have worked have had floors that at some point needed cleaning. Knowing how to clean a floor is an incredibly useful skill.

First, you sweep. Then you plunge a mop into a bucket of clean, hot water mixed with a little cleaning product. Give that floor a nice go-over, paying extra attention to the sticky parts. Put some effort into this. You should feel it in your triceps.

The last step is key: Get yourself two clean towels, put one under each foot, and skate across that floor in long, side-to-side steps until it’s dry. The skate gives the floor a nice shiny finish and pre-empts the muddy footprints of those who absolutely cannot wait until the floor is dry to walk across it. It’s satisfying. And it’s fun. Corinne Purtill, senior reporter

How to talk to anyone

For one glorious summer when I was 19, I worked as the front-desk person at a tattoo shop—doing initial consults, making appointments for artists, fielding questions, and doing lunch runs. The job was seven days a week, but at the extremely teenage-friendly hours of noon to 8pm, and it paid in cash.

Tattoo shops have an inherent intimacy that makes it hard to avoid getting personal—people are telling you about experiences and passions so compelling that they want them inked on their bodies forever. I had grown up with crippling social anxiety, and the shop forced me to confront that, but in a really special and unique way. I still think it’s the job that made me fall in love with talking to people.Kira Bindrim, managing editor

How to keep things moving

At 17, I started working at a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store on a busy shopping street in Queens, New York. Only years later did I come to realize that what I saw as mindless tasks were important lessons in how business is conducted and workplaces function.

Everything was about efficiency and customer service. We were trained by the family owners to make each scoop 3.5 oz, and at the right circumference. A scoop that was the proper weight yet packed too densely made for a bad presentation and ate into thin profit margins.

Cleaning up at the end of the night was not just about closing the store properly but also making sure the next day’s opening could go smoothly. Put things back so your colleagues can find them easily. On two-person shifts, be aware of the world beyond your station. If your partner is tied up on a time-consuming sundae or cake decoration, keep your line moving. If you need help, communicate right away. Nothing worse than a customer pileup on a hot summer day—except maybe when you are careless in fitting a 16-oz wax-lined paper cup on a shake machine and a spinning blade cuts through it. Customers are not eager to wear the product. Life lesson: Apologies are appreciated, but have napkins handy at all times. —John Mancini, global news editor

How to be interested in anything

My most memorable summer job: Working as a tractor driver on Kibbutz Sde Nehemia in Israel.

For a city kid with no use for a driver’s license and no experience farming, spending a summer on a tractor harvesting apples was a surprising delight. Who knew I appreciated nature? Not me. Waking up before dawn to drink coffee with the crew, the sweet smell of fruit and dew in the cool morning air which would soon be scorching, gorging on apples, mastering the stick shift, perfecting my reverse, the feeling of camaraderie among workers, it was magical.

In fact, I was tempted to become an agriculture major in college or skip school altogether and just spend forever in the orchards. That didn’t happen—my parents were pretty insistent that farming wasn’t my forte—but the experience taught me that I didn’t yet know myself. I wasn’t just bookish and could be interested in anything, it turns out. —Ephrat Livni, reporter

How to use duct tape in a pinch

My summer jobs taught me that duct tape is very versatile. One summer the restaurant I worked at let me be a line cook in the kitchen, and I had a lot of fun. Once my friend Boris accidentally stabbed himself in the arm with a boning knife, wrapped it up with duct tape, and kept working.

Another time I worked at a Boy Scout camp for the summer and we played Assassin, that game where you have to “kill” someone by sticking a piece of duct tape on them. It started to rain so my friend was like, “Dave, help me run back to our tents and help me take my tent flaps down so my stuff doesn’t get wet,” and then when we got to his tent the flaps were already down and he killed me. —Dave Gershgorn, reporter

How to stop taking emotional labor for granted

My most memorable summer job was working the opening shift at an upscale deli/bakery in my hometown. The early morning regulars were the best (mostly because they tipped). But as the day went on, the beachgoers, tourists, and self-important locals would turn the joint into a veritable circus of entitlement. Fortunately, the owner was locally renowned for his cantankerous and occasionally malevolent nature—which gave me the unique joy of working in one of the only casual dining establishments where the customer was decidedly not always right.

While I commuted from my parents’ house, the largely Mexican kitchen staff I worked with traveled vast distances to get to this job, and worked far longer and harder than I did. The memory of performing not only physical work, but the emotional labor of cheerful customer service for $8 an hour and very little in tips, is something that I’ve never since forgotten. To this day, the cheerful attitudes I see in employees of, say, a Starbucks or Pret a Manger—people who generally deal with an unrelenting deluge of self-important urbanites from open until close—is something I marvel at regularly. —Rosie Spinks, reporter

How to see through branding

One summer in high school, I briefly worked on an assembly line for Dylex, a now-defunct retail holding company that, at its height, owned 17 brands (or so says Wikipedia).

The way I remember it, my job was to stand at a conveyor belt that supplied our line with taupe pants, men’s, size 36, from a seemingly eternal source. Some people attached labels with shops’ names to the garments, and others were folding and re-boxing them. I was folding, and I could not keep up with the solemn Italian and Portuguese grandmothers who were my peers.

I’m sure spirited assembly lines exist outside of socialist propaganda films and truck commercials, but I’ve never romanticized that kind of work. Still, the real lesson of that job was in the pants. As a teenager, to see those seemingly identical slacks take on a new aura under a different brand name (and presumably a different price) brought down some false gods. My frugal, blue-collar dad had always sworn that it was all the same “goddamned crap.” The “no name” catsup brand was the same as Heinz, and the shirts he bought at a discount store were no different than those from a “respectable” shop, where the lighting was gentler on the eyes and they played Duran Duran. I must have known by then that he was mostly right, but Dylex left me astonished by the hollowness behind famous labels.

I still fall for brands like everyone else, but since that summer, I’ve at least been in on the joke. —Lila MacLellan, reporter

How to recognize sexism in the working world

I worked at an indie record store in the 1990s, starting the summer I was 16. I didn’t make much, but I loved music, I loved selling things, and I loved the drama of working with a bunch of people my own age.

I learned how satisfying it felt to help a stressed-out mom go down her teen’s wish list, or amaze someone when they came in humming a Billboard hit and I immediately knew what it was. I enjoyed being an expert and I enjoyed being busy—I learned that I dreaded boredom and slow days. But, looking back I was also learning a lot of sinister things that seemed awesome at the time: I got to hire all my friends! (Cute teen girls bring in creepy middle-aged guys, who buy a lot of music.) My 30-something male coworkers said I was so stylish! (One liked to say “I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you leave” every time my shift was up.) And, last but not least, adorable boys will like you if you let them educate you about having the correct musical taste. (There’s a word for that now.) —Susan Howson, deputy push editor

How to find a job that’s the perfect fit

When I was in my early teens, I had a part-time job during holiday seasons gift-wrapping boxes at a chocolate shop. Squares, rectangles, triangles, hexagons, cylinders, giant gobstoppers, novelty-shaped lollypops—you name it, I wrapped it. At the time I was obsessed with making origami, so it was a natural fit. Not only were my little, nimble, on-the-verge-of-child-labor fingers deft enough to play with paper all day, but I actually enjoyed a task that most others found to be a chore.

I think I was more excited about the free chocolate than learning life lessons, but the job did fit parts of the Venn diagram of finding the perfect career path: something you like doing, that you’re good at, that other people don’t want to do, and that you can be paid for… well, except for the well-paid part, I guess—unless truffles count, in which case I was earning six figures. —Georgia Frances King, Ideas editor

How to create a comfortable space

My first of many jobs in food service was at a creperie on a busy corner of the St. Louis suburb where I grew up. I learned how to flip crepes, pull espresso shots, and mop bathrooms. I also learned how much I like being part of a clean, well-lighted place that provides consistency and comfort for members of a community—that it brings me consistency and comfort in turn. And that there’s no such thing as over-tipping. —Jenni Avins, reporter

How to hustle

When I was 15 years old, I was wandering the streets of Long Island a few nights before school was officially out for summer. Cell phones were still pretty rare those days, and, despite months of pleading, my parents were adamant that I couldn’t have the Nokia I so desired.

I walked into a local pizza shop and asked if I could use their phone to call home. As I hung up the phone, a waitress walked over to me and asked if I was the new phone girl.

“No,” I responded.

“Do you want to be?” she asked.

And so I had my first job, taking delivery and pick up orders for Gino’s Pizza of Wantagh. My parents disapproved. My first shift was the night before my math final, and it didn’t do anything for my college resume. But who cared? Each shift I earned $4.35 an hour (under the table, of course) that I could put toward my treasured Nokia. That summer I balanced my gig at Gino’s with my also low-paying, college-resume-friendly job as an arts-and-crafts counselor at a local day camp.

By the end of summer, I had enough money to purchase the Nokia. My parents were so proud of my work ethic, even though I had driven them crazy to pursue it, they decided to help pay the monthly bill.

It was my first lesson in independence. I learned that if you work hard for what you want, you can and should go after it, no matter what anyone says. —Sari Zeidler, director of growth

How to saw through a Ponderosa pine

I was raised and went to college in New York City, and after I graduated, I wanted to get as far away as possible. So that summer I found myself in the woods of central Idaho, volunteering on a trail maintenance crew in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. I lived in a cabin accessible either by two-day hike or prop plane, but my co-workers and I spent most of our days on the trail, sleeping in tents and carrying Pulaskis—a combination of ax and pick-ax—and two-man cross-cut saws (chain saws are prohibited in wilderness areas).

The job was demanding, and nothing was harder than clearing the massive Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees that fell across the trail. Often three feet in diameter, it could take an hour to saw through them. But before we would make our first cut, we would study the geometry of the tree and how it fell: If we began sawing from the wrong direction, the tree could sag and bind the saw, and the only way to free it would be to chop it out, a back-breaking process that could take half a day. I learned the hard way that when faced with a big job, it’s best to assess the situation before diving in. — Oliver Staley, senior reporter