Take This Job and Love It

By Levine, Daniel | Policy Review, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Take This Job and Love It


Levine, Daniel, Policy Review


For more than 30 years, the federal government has been trying to figure out ways to get people to work. It spends billions of taxpayer dollars each year on job-training and placement programs with questionable results.

For the past six years I have written a series of articles for Reader's Digest titled "My First Job," in which successful people discuss the value of their early work experiences. Their jobs were not part of government-sponsored training or placement programs; they were simply low-level jobs earned through diligent effort. And what they learned in these jobs goes a long way toward dispelling several liberal myths about the workplace in general and entry-level jobs in particular.

Myth #1: Low-paying jobs are a dead end.

Roberto Suarez fled Cuba after Castro came to power and arrived in Miami with just $5 in his pocket and a small duffel bag of clothes. He doggedly pursued every job lead. When he heard about openings at "the Herald," he had no idea what it was, but he went there anyway and stood in line for hours, hoping to be called for temporary work. Eventually he was picked for a 10-hour night shift bundling newspapers. Leaving work at 5 A.M., he was told to come back in five hours if he wanted to work again. He returned every day; after three months he was given a regular five-day shift. Suarez went on to become president of the Miami Herald Publishing Co.

Nothing makes Herman Cain, the CEO of Godfather's Pizza, quite so angry as youngsters who refuse jobs or complain about them because they do not pay enough or because they consider the work beneath them. Cain held a number of early jobs including mowing lawns, washing dishes, and handling a jackhammer on a construction crew. He expresses a view shared by all those interviewed: "In every job I've held, I have learned something that helped me in my next job. If you look hard enough, you can learn from any job you do."

All their jobs were low-paying, but they were also among the most valuable and enriching experiences of their lives. These jobs were their introduction to the real world. They were exposed, often for the first time, to some of the basic requirements necessary to succeed, such as arriving on time, working with others, being polite, and dressing presentably. Their first jobs also helped them develop a strong work ethic and character.

The lessons that New Jersey developer and trucking magnate Arthur E. Imperatore learned while working in a candy store at age 10 made such an impression on him that he can recall them today--more than 60 years later. One day while sweeping the store, he found 15 cents under a table and gave it to the owner. Imperatore was shocked when the owner admitted placing the coins there to see if he could be trusted. Imperatore went on to work for him for several years and learned a lasting lesson: "I've never forgotten that honesty is what kept me in that job."

Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts was a dishwasher in a diner when he discovered that his hard work and professionalism were not going unnoticed. A local clothing store extended him a line of credit because the owner had heard he was diligent and trustworthy. Watts was just 12.

When Norman Augustine, the CEO of Lockheed-Martin Corp., worked on a roofing crew as a young man, he was responsible for spreading tar out of barrels. He learned to appreciate his work according to his own private standard of value: "Since it took two hours to spread a barrel and I earned $1.69 an hour, that came out to about $3.38 a barrel. A ball game was a half-barrel event, a date was a two-barrel affair, and the prom was a six-barrel night."

Myth #2: Low-paying jobs destroy confidence.

Author and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan said the first time she felt truly self-assured was when she worked as a 14-year-old summer-camp counselor. Says Noonan, "That first job showed me I could be responsible and more than the class clown. …

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