July 31, 2015

Flashback Friday: Our First Jobs

By Megan Lim

Finding a job is hard. Finding a job without the proper education or financial and social resources is even harder. With 1 in 7 young adults ages 16 to 24 neither working nor in school, the numbers are hard to ignore, especially since early job experience can be a huge indicator of your success later on in life. On Monday, Kojo will be talking to two experts about what’s happening to the country’s disconnected youth and what we’re doing about it.

Here at the Kojo team, we’ve been reminiscing on the stresses of our own teenage (and for some of us, preteen) years and our first jobs. Enjoy our nostalgia with us and email your first working experiences to kojo@wamu.org or tweet them to us at @kojoshow.


An accounting ledger. Photo by Laura Gilmore.

Kojo Nnamdi, Host

In Guyana, South America, there were few opportunities for part-time or summer employment when I was growing up, so my first job was a full-time job, after graduation from high school. Somehow I was qualified to be a clerk in the Internal Audit Department of a major corporate chain.
On my first day, I was posted in the office of a machine-manufacturing foundry, where I sat across a desk from another more experienced clerk. We checked ledger entries. He had one ledger in front of him, I another. He would call out an entry, I would check to see if the entry in my ledger corresponded, and vice versa. I didn’t wear a watch, and there were no clocks visible, so after a morning of this, starting at 8.30am, I suggested we break for lunch. He smiled, looked at his watch, and informed me that it was 9:10 a.m.

Then two things occurred to me: one, that 40 minutes was exactly the duration of a high school class period, so it seemed like an eternity to me and two, that I wasn’t cut out for a career in accounting.

Emily Berman, Producer


Photo by Waqas Mustafeez.

When I was 9-years-old I started working for a Bar and Bat Mitzvah party planner who lived 3 doors down the block. She designed the balloons, place cards and table decorations for celebrations around suburban Detroit. I would sit on the floor of huge ballrooms and curl streamers, fill up bowls with salted nuts, and fan out napkins to look more festive. The work was super fun, and I made $5 an hour. Which, when you’re 9, is pretty good money.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure it’s legal to hire a 9 year old. But I loved it. And I was really, really good at fanning those napkins.

Elizabeth Weinstein, Producer

It was out of sheer desperation that I landed my first job at Hardee’s the summer following my 1992 high school graduation. I’d searched my hometown of Champaign, IL. for something — anything — more glamorous than fast food, but the mall wouldn’t take me (I’ll never shop at The Limited again) and all the mowing jobs at the Park District were taken. I took solace in the fact that my Hardee’s was a brand new restaurant, and we were debuting the Frisco Burger — a mouthwatering slab of beef sandwiched between Swiss cheese, tomatoes and butter-soaked sourdough bread.

Those Frisco burgers made the miserable tasks of frying foods and prepping sandwiches for $4.25 an hour, eight hours per day a lot more tolerable because I’d eat one each day “on break.” My takeaway from my job at Hardee’s? Second-degree burns from hot oil eventually do fade. And NEVER think outside the box — if you exceed the corporate-mandated serving of one-squirt-of-ketchup-and-one-squirt-of-mustard per burger, you WILL receive a visit from Management.

Jacob Bennett, Intern

Photo by Qfamily.

My first job was as a clerk at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Massachusetts when I was 17. Most of the job was just working the register and preparing drinks. The customers were seamen and tourists. We had the same people pretty much every day. I got pretty good at timing it so we would have drinks pre-prepared for regulars. My bosses let me keep any donuts left over at the end of the day, which is definitely one of the best job perks I’ve had so far. Although hearing everyone’s Kojo impressions at WAMU comes a pretty close second.

Tayla Burney, Producer


A shirt from Tayla Burney’s grandfather’s store, Sargent’s.

My first job was acquired through a little good, old-fashioned, nepotism. When I was 14 I started working at my grandfather’s hardware store in my home city of Brockton, Mass. Everyone in my family worked for him at some point, in some capacity and the same was true for me as his only grandchild.

Over the course of four summers, and some weekend hours during the school year, I learned how to run a cash register, make keys and hold my own in a setting that’s often dominated by men, where a teenaged girl telling you what kind of drill bit you needed for your project wasn’t necessarily what people expected or welcomed.

My grandfather was a quiet man of few words, but with a big, commanding presence. The biggest lesson I learned from watching him is that you have to work hard to earn people’s respect and even harder to keep it. That building relationships and maintaining them will serve you well. Many of the lessons I picked up from observing his interaction with customers and the community, as he drew on his vast knowledge of the construction business, have stayed with me. And I cherish memories of those hours working alongside him now that he – and the business – is gone.

Ruth Tam, Web Producer

A Jewel-Osco in Andersonville in Chicago. Photo by Kevin Zolkiewicz.

My first job was bagging groceries in Arlington Heights, Ill., at the midwestern grocery store chain Jewel-Osco. Entry level jobs there were almost a rite of passage in my hometown. My coworkers were friends and classmates, so even though my responsibilities required me to be on my feet for hours, I didn’t mind it. In fact, every act became a game, Mary Poppins style. I would bag groceries like a fiend, competing with myself to see how few bags I could use for each transaction. And, even though there was a 5-cart limit on how many I was able to bring back to the store from the lot, I would stack as many carts as possible into each other -8 or 9- and push them back to the store with the determination of a cartoon train.

It’s a good thing this was only a summer job, because I doubt the enthusiasm would have lasted. It was an great experience, though. I was in and of the community, keeping busy and earning my own money. To this day, I bag my own groceries (like Tetris for boring adults) and when I see a stray cart in a parking lot, I wheel it to its rightful place.

Megan Lim, Intern

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 11.06.54 AM

Kojo Show intern Megan Lim on the job at Sakura. Photo by Connor Martin.

When I was 16, I got my first job at a Sakura in Olney, Md. It’s one of those Japanese hibachi restaurants where they grill the food at your table, you know the ones (if not, I recommend you watch the Office’s Season 3 Christmas episode where Michael goes to Benihana). I started out as a host and then began waiting tables after I turned 18 and worked there until I left for college. Besides learning how to best tie fake obis and how yum yum sauce gets made, I also got some pretty good people skills. Anyone who’s worked in food service knows they get tested a decent amount in a restaurant.

The worst part was definitely the kimonos. Wearing an outfit that thick in a place where literally flaming hot grills are all around you isn’t ideal. They also encouraged some of the customers to try out some of their Japanese on me, which I almost always had no input on, seeing as how I’m Korean.

Kathy Goldgeier, Producer


Photo by Beth Coll Anderson.

My first job as a teenager was babysitting. I watched my orthodontist’s kids in Mill Valley, Ca. I stayed with lots of neighborhood kids. I even spent the weekend with three children on my street while their parents were away. I’d babysat often for the two little boys, but the baby girl added a new twist. I don’t think I slept either night the parents were gone, out of fear that she’d cry and I wouldn’t hear her.

Avery Kleinman, Producer

Photo by remboll.

I started working at Baskin Robbins when I was 15. It was a fun job, and despite being paid minimum wage, a number of people actually tipped, which made my pay slightly higher. The biggest tippers were usually parents who were grateful that the kids’ scoop of ice cream had calmed down their bawling toddler. That was one of my biggest lessons from the job: it is amazing how a $2.50 scoop of vanilla ice cream can calm a cranky child. Add some sprinkles? Maybe they’ll even crack a smile.

Another lesson: nibbling on toppings over the course of four hours is not any better for you than sitting down and eating a bowl of ice cream. Grazing on crushed Oreos, Reese’s, M&M’s, gummy bears and other toppings adds up quick. My co-workers and I would also make what we called “mini sundaes.” We’d start with a spoonful of ice cream on the trademark pink Baskin-Robbins spoon, add a small dot of hot fudge on top, then a dollop of whipped cream. There you have it: a bite-sized mini sundae on a spoon. We’d also help ourselves to tastes using the mini taster spoons intended for customer samples, and we were especially good at targeting the biggest chunks of topping mixed into the ice cream. I’m sure it’s not surprising that I gained weight while I worked there.

Just like at coffee shops or bars, we had our regulars, and yes I knew their orders by heart. There was the man who was working a construction site nearby and would always order a single scoop of vanilla ice cream on a cone. Another regular was the woman who came on our “buy one get one free” sundae day, which was Wednesdays. She’d always order a large sundae with some crazy combination of flavors and toppings, and then do the same thing for her free second one. She said the second one was for her husband in the car. I never saw that husband.

For a long time, I hated going to Baskin Robbins because it reminded me too much of work, but recently, visiting gives me a sense of nostalgia. There seem to be fewer and fewer stand-alone Baskin Robbins, though. For me, the Dunkin Donuts-Baskin Robbins combos just aren’t the same.

Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Producer


A finishing line for flatwork and garments at an industrial laundry.

My first job was at the local industrial laundry in Warren, Mass. when I was 14. I got my first Social Security number, and I opened a bank account with my first paycheck. We did all the laundry for the hospital in the next town, including gowns, sheets, towels, and surgery linens.

The middle-aged Polish ladies who worked full-time at the laundry were endlessly frustrated with us part-time high school kids. They would feed pillowcases through the dryer press so fast we could only fold one for every three that came out. Your pillowcases would jam up in a wrinkled pile, while next to you a full-timer would be adding another perfect rectangle to her stack. After letting you scramble for a while, the ladies would let you know they were slowing down the rollers–for you.

There was also an enormous machine that dried and pressed sheets—you’d guide the ends in between two rollers, they’d be pressed and ironed and come out the other end to be folded by two people in what looked like a kind of ballet. I did eventually develop a killer sheet-folding technique. But the most fun was Rough Dry, an area of huge rolling baskets full of warm, freshly dried towels and surgical linens ready to be folded. The Polish ladies liked to scare us, telling us that sometimes forgotten scalpels and body parts turned up in the baskets. One day, we got a towel folded and sealed with surgical tape around something squishy and warm. The Polish ladies watched as we squealed and speculated as to what organ it might be; it turned out to be a surgical glove filled with water and tied on the end—a surgeon’s idea of a joke. The Polish ladies were used to these games. They returned a joke of their own: they carefully safety-pinned a folded stack of surgical towels together, so that picking up one would pull up the whole pile.

Courtland Sutton, Intern

Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Photo by Dennis Church.

My first paying job was with Charleston County Parks and Recreation at the Mount Pleasant Pier in Mount Pleasant, SC. I started working shortly after my 16th birthday. I was a park attendant, and made smoothies, milkshakes, sandwiches, operated the cash register, and handled customer service concerns. This summer was my fifth with park. I was promoted last year to Operations Aide.

Skills that I acquired or fine-tuned include customer relations and cash handling. The most surprising skill I’ve had to use pertains to public speaking. Because our busiest day of the year was the Fourth of July, people could get pretty catty within the cafe if they line didn’t move fast enough, or if they believed we were responsible for them getting a good spot on the pier to see the fireworks. They placed me on the register because of my cash handling skills, but continued to do so every year. The managers liked how the cash drawer was almost always spot on and that I could speak over the crowd to organize them within the shop.

Michael Martinez, Producer


Not a copy of The Uptown Citizen, but you get it. Photo by Joanna Bourne.

I started my first job doing something that a lot of little brothers do: copying an older brother.

P.J. and I are roughly two years apart. We grew up in Upper Northwest D.C., just a few blocks down the street from Lafayette Elementary School. I tried to take after him in so many different ways. He was tall and smart and successful at most everything he tried. Without his example, I might not ever have learned that hypercolor shirts weren’t really that cool. As role models go, I couldn’t have asked for a better one.

My big brother only became cooler in my eyes when he landed a job delivering newspapers in our neighborhood for The Uptown Citizen. He had important things to do. He had an income stream independent from our parents. It was the most mature thing either of us had ever done. After a few months of observing him, I decided I wanted in. I also desperately wanted a Discman CD player, and my parents told me I could get one if I saved up my own money. I needed the job.

To my surprise, the newspaper took me on with P.J.’s recommendation. They gave me a route in the Barnaby Woods neighborhood, all within walking distance of our house. They paid me a few dollars for each biweekly delivery. The newspaper also provided me a giant shoulder bag – and with each stack of new papers, I’d get a set of rubber bands to roll them up.

I was a strong kid, so I could manage carrying the bag and walking the route. Riding a bicycle was out of the question though – my Schwinn would have tipped over. The best days came when my dad offered up vehicular assistance. If the weather acted up or I was short on time, he’d drive while I chucked papers out from the back of our family’s Ford Taurus. I had a pretty good arm, and I made a game out of it. I’d assign myself an arbitrary set of points the closer I could get a paper to a home’s front door. Every so often, I’d misfire entirely. If a paper landed in someone’s bushes instead of on their front stoop, dad would stop the car so I could get out and correct my mistake. We always listened to the radio on our delivery runs– it was around the time that my dad, who directed my brother and me to everything from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix, discovered that he really loved this new band called Pearl Jam.

As the months went by, I saved all my earnings methodically. I kept the money in a wooden box in my room, each deposit getting me closer to the portable CD player I wanted so badly. I got there eventually, and I bought the Discman with cash at a Price Club store in Montgomery County. I’d like to think the first album I ever played on it was something edgy and cool, but I’m pretty sure it was something by the Spin Doctors.

My days at the paper didn’t last long after that. It stopped publishing in the mid-nineties. By the time we stopped making deliveries, P.J. was nearly six feet tall. I was still very much a runt of a little brother, waiting to catch my growth spurt. He found his next job at a summer camp, a place where I eventually started working too. I kept that job every summer until I graduated from high school. But after a few summers of gaining confidence at work, I started to feel less like I was blindly following P.J.’s example and more like I was learning to be me. We grew up to be two very different people, but I still look up to him in so many ways – and I don’t know if I ever would have found out how to be my own person if I didn’t start off by taking after him.