Six Awfully Good Career Lessons From Awful Summer Jobs

During college, in the summers I worked in a sandwich shop on Cape Cod while my boyfriend at the time worked in maintenance for the National Park Service. In his case, “maintenance” was a glorified term for janitor—his job was to empty trash cans and clean the restrooms and portable toilets at all of the Cape Cod National Seashore beaches. While this summer job may seem awful to some, it had enough positive aspects that he went back to it several years in a row. The benefits to any summer job you get in your teens or in college can be unforeseen when you start out, yet what you learn on the job can stay with you for the rest of your life.

Here are some benefits to working in jobs that may not turn into careers, but can provide valuable experience and extra cash during your summers away from school.

Get exposure to different ways of life

The National Park Service maintenance crews always worked in teams of two or three people. The time they spent in the truck together going from site to site was time to talk about anything they wanted. Even at the age of 18, my ex-boyfriend knew he wanted to be a writer. He was fascinated by people and their stories, and has since published a novel.  The men he worked with were Cape Cod natives, and much older than him, so it was the perfect opportunity for him to learn about their experiences and perspective on life, which was much different than that of his upper-middle class family. Essentially, he was collecting material, which allowed him to overlook the griminess of cleaning toilets. Any job that entails driving around a lot, either with other people in the car or to their homes, can expose you to different types of people and broaden your perspective, showing you that we are all more alike than we are different. Jobs like Uber driver, baby sitter, delivery driver, can be choices that get you out of your comfort zone and provide the opportunity to hear interesting personal stories.

Learn what you don’t want

For me, the biggest lesson from working in a restaurant was learning that I didn’t want to work in the restaurant business. The daily grind of food prep, taking orders, making sandwiches, scooping ice cream, and cleaning up felt like a treadmill. It certainly wasn’t why I was going to college. I also learned that I didn’t like a public-facing role: I disliked taking customer orders and running the cash register, but I didn’t mind standing at the sandwich-making station all day. I also tried my hand at waitressing, which was more of disaster for me than running a cash register. When I was ready to look for jobs after college, I already knew that I would rather work behind the scenes than in front of people. Knowing what you don’t want is valuable information in the path to finding what you do want.

Make lifelong friends

My neighbor Ben worked in the photo department at Sam’s Club when he was in college. It doesn’t relate much to his job in software sales now, but he told me that he met two of his best friends there. Ten years later, he still counts these men among his best buddies. I can attest to the same experience from my summer jobs—I met my first boyfriend at my high school summer job at an amusement park, and some lifelong friends at those restaurant jobs.

Understand group dynamics

Being a multigenerational and/or multicultural work situation can provide lessons about group dynamics that will carry forward into the rest of your career. My friend Chris Pielher, @TheChrisPiehler, now a writer and comedian, taught horseback riding at a summer camp while in high school, and said, “I was the only boy on a staff of 8-10, so it was great experience in seeing the dynamic among a group of women. It also made me comfortable around women.” That’s a pretty valuable skill for a teenage boy. For me, the group dynamics of the restaurant business taught me that everyone working together in what they are most suited to do is what makes an operation run smoothly. That’s not much different than the corporate world, where teams can consist of engineers, account managers, marketers, operations staff, and finance staff who work together to produce a product that clients want to buy.

Learn patience

If your summer job entails working with children, animals, handicapped people, or the elderly, you will most certainly learn patience. Chris said of being a horseback riding instructor, “Working with the kids taught me that kids who seem scared can build confidence quickly with the right instruction and the right pony. Handling horses requires you to be quiet, calm and clear in what you want from them.” Being patient with people and animals gives you a heartfelt sense of confidence in the effectiveness of your work. Jobs as a nanny, babysitter, dog walker, or animal trainer, can all help you learn patience.

Get fun perks

Many jobs that seek to hire teens such as those at amusement parks or movie theaters offer perks. Restaurants also usually offer free or discounted meals. David Spark, @dspark, now a media consultant at Spark Media Solutions, had a summer job that entailed popping 75-100 garbage bags of popcorn a day at a multiplex theater. He’s doubtful that he learned any skills at that job, but he said, “I got to see tons of movies for free, bring all my friends for free, my family could go see movies for free, and I could eat all the popcorn and drink all the soda I want.” For $4.00 an hour back in the late 1980’s, those were badly needed perks. When interviewing for your summer job, ask what perks they offer. Great jobs to gain fun summer perks include amusement park jobs and movie theater jobs.

Whatever type of summer job you seek, know that you will learn something important while earning money– whether it’s a new skill, exposure to different people and situations, or even a personal discovery about which job not to do next summer.