News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

August 7, 2010

MARK BENNETT: First jobs are extraordinarily valuable

TERRE HAUTE — They’re usually easy to spot.

Wide eyes. A nervous smile. A manager peering over their shoulders.

A customer might be forced to wait longer than usual. “Sorry, it’s my first day on the job,” the young cashier says, staring intently at the register as if one wrong move might cause it to explode.

The adult standing in line might feel empathy and stay calm. Or, the customer might complain loudly, further flustering the teenager.

Such tense moments make a person’s first job valuable.

“You’re forced to think, ‘How do I make this person, who is so angry at me now, have a good experience?’” said Kristen Eastlick, a senior research analyst at First Jobs Institute, a nonprofit advocacy agency in Washington, D.C.

I learned that lesson as a 16-year-old dishwasher/busboy/room-service guy at a hotel restaurant years ago. I carried the same tray of breakfast to a woman’s room three times because the bagel wasn’t toasted to her satisfaction. Of course, by the third trip, I was ready to bring her a toaster and let her fix it herself. Instead, I kept my cool — and, thus, my job — by being persistent and patient.

This summer, teenagers who landed first jobs are fortunate. Nearly one of every four Indiana teens ages 16 to 19 were jobless. (According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Indiana’s teen unemployment rate stood at 22.7 percent as the summer began.) And of those unemployed, one of every five spent six months or more looking for work.

Just 10 years ago, only 13.3 percent of Indiana teens had no job.

The Great Recession, which hit in late 2007, forced thousands of suddenly unemployed adults to accept jobs once reserved for teens. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage increase to $7.25 an hour last summer prompted employers to lean toward the more experienced adult workers, Eastlick said.

“While there have been fluctuations in the last decade, this measure has definitely been on an upward trajectory,” Eastlick said of the teen jobless rate.

Brandi Russell landed on the positive side of those statistics. The 17-year-old Terre Haute North Vigo High School senior got her first job as a cashier at the city’s Sheridan Park pool last summer, and continued it this summer. She’s learned to help kids with special needs, tell customers they must have swim trunks and not shorts, and to be accurate with money.

Though she intends to study at Indiana State University and pursue a career as a physical therapist, she’ll benefit from her first job as a pool cashier. As a physical therapist, she said, “You have to have people skills with that, too.”

First jobs give young people a bundle of future advantages. Whether they’re grilling burgers, stocking grocery shelves, painting curbs or selling clothes, they can develop an understanding of what makes a business profitable. They get used to proving themselves, doing tasks they don’t like (a sobering moment for many teenagers), and coping with failure.

Their search for work, successful or not, is also a plus; between ages 18 and 42, the average person (born between 1957 and 1964) held an average of 10 jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Life throws curves, especially these days when 30- and 40-year tenures with the same employer are rare.

Consequently, those experiences of finding and working a first job pay off, even if the teens’ intended career is in a completely different field.

“The value of a first job is a second job,” Eastlick said, “because it teaches you those experiences that are unique to being employed.”

Duke Bennett broke into the labor force as a 16-year-old high school sophomore at Terre Haute North, working at the IGA store at 25th Street and Wabash Avenue. Bennett, now the mayor of Terre Haute, bagged groceries, stocked shelves, carried goods to customers’ cars and cleaned floors. “We just did everything,” he recalled.

He kept that job for five years, through high school graduation and his college years at Ivy Tech. Bennett wound up in different lines of work, but the worth of that first job was “just the work discipline, working with adults and doing all those things that would help you develop your skill sets for [a career] and having a family,” he said.

Those two things, indeed, connect. As we learn patience, tolerance and empathy toward co-workers, hopefully, we learn to exhibit at least that much or more of those qualities toward our families. Some are lucky enough to develop those traits at home, watching their parents. For others, a first job might be their first lesson in dealing responsibly with people.

For Eastlick, her initial job came at age 15 as a part-time office assistant at a law firm. She gained “a lot of confidence,” found the gumption to ask adults a lot of questions, and learned to type. “I liked the value of earning something for my work, too,” she said.

Those first paychecks, complete with all the deductions, also impress teens. Soon, all of our questions about how our parents spent and saved money come back to us. Then, we begin to weigh that pay against responsibilities and our like (or dislike) for the job.

Russell plans to begin college in the fall of next year. And next summer, she wants to return to her job as cashier at the pool. “I like what I’m doing,” she said.

That’s important, whether it’s a first job or No. 10.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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