Jobs (even Low-wage) Jobs Can Teach Valuable Lessons

Rachel Farrell’s article for MSN (3/21/2011), “4 jobs everyone should have” got me thinking about the importance of early career jobs. She listed four positions that she believes teach valuable lessons—server, retail clerk, customer service and manual labor.

In my own career I have worked in three of the four; retail clerk, customer service, and manual labor, and I learned something about work and work relationships in each one of those positions.

Growing up on a family farm gave me an early start in learning about work and manual labor. Lessons I learned from the experience included—when there is work to be done the whole family is expected to pitch in, complaining will not get work done faster, people who produce things control more of their own destiny, and work first, play later. Joe, a successful company executive, told me that early in his career his family farm work ethic separated him from other managers. He stated; “It wasn’t that I worked that much harder than my colleagues; it was that when a project needed to be done I got it done. It was like harvesting a crop, when it is time to bring it in you bring it in.”

As a part-time retail clerk during college, I learned different lessons—a smile goes a long way, being cruel to a clerk does not get you better service, and seeing a customer get what they want or need can be satisfying. Long days on the floor, though not demanding like hard physical labor, can be draining so I also learned that having co-workers who are fun, respectful, and do their share of work can make the day much more enjoyable and productive. My sales totals often exceeded those of other clerks working more hours who were clearly unhappy with their jobs. To this day, before starting work with a client, I check to make sure my attitude is positive because I know a positive attitude will make for a better experience for the client and improve the chances of a successful outcome.

The third of Farrell’s “4 jobs everyone should have” I have held is that of a customer service representative (CSR). CSRs often bear the brunt of a customer’s frustration and anger over the failings of a product or service the CSR likely did not even sell them. The lessons I learned (and those other CSRs have shared with me) include—give the customer a chance to vent, do not take the customer’s comments personally, breathe, maintain good eye contact, use a calm voice, and when the customer is done talking, tell them what you can do for them. The best CSRs know that owning the mistakes of the product or service, and then finding reasonable solutions can actually make for a more loyal customer rather than a lost one. Knowing how to provide excellent customer service is an important part of most professions. Who would you rather see, all other skills being equal, a doctor or lawyer who doesn’t listen to you or attend to your concerns or one that pays attention to you and understands your concerns?

Careers are composed of all past job experiences. The more you learn from each job, the more effective you will be at your current position. So don’t look at those early, low-wage jobs as unimportant. Instead see them as opportunities to develop work habits and skills that will benefit you throughout your lifetime.

How about you, have you had a job that was more valuable to you for its lessons than the pay? What did you learn that has benefited you throughout your career?