Our First Summer Jobs – and What We Learned From Them

Did you have a summer job as a teenager? If you were in high school between 1974 and 1994, chances are you did, according to a 2015 study by Pew Research. More than half of 16- to 19-year-olds held a summer job in those years.

But as iconic as it may be, the summer job is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Pew notes a sharp drop in teen employment that began with the 1991 and 2001 recessions and was followed by an even steeper fall-off during the Great Recession. After each drop, the teen employment rate failed to bounce back, and as of 2014 fewer than a third of Americans aged 16 to 19 held down a summer job.

Pew blames the overall drop in teen employment on a variety of factors, including a lack of low-skill, entry-level jobs to begin with. But these days, Pew adds, students also stay enrolled in high school or college over the summer, and more teens perform unpaid community service work to put a shine on their college applications or take unpaid internships to gain targeted job experience.

Among teens that did hold a summer job in 2014, more than half worked in the service industry, with 32.3% employed in accommodation and food services (think hotels and restaurants) and another 22.5% in retail.

Here at The Simple Dollar, nearly all of us had summer or year-round jobs as a teenagers. Below, TSD writers Trent Hamm, Jon Gorey, Holly Johnson, and Drew Housman share memories and lessons learned from their first summer jobs.

Trent: Fisherman

My first summer job was providing assistance for my father’s small commercial fishing business. I helped him during most of my summers of high school.

My job was usually preparing the fishing lines that he used, then going out on the river with him and helping out with odd tasks so that he could focus on getting the boat into position and getting the lines properly in the water. That meant that during the day, I went through lines that had been used in previous fishing expeditions, untangled the knots, baited the hooks (literally more than a thousand hooks per day), and arranged all of it in boxes so that it could easily be placed in the water without further tangling.

While actually out in the boat, I was usually responsible for dropping the anchor, moving line boxes around in the boat, pulling anchor once a line was in place, and helping with navigation to the next line. When hauling in lines, I would also help with getting the larger fish into the boat. I rarely directly handled the fish, as they were usually taken directly to market.

I enjoyed the work, particularly the early morning trips out on the water to start bringing in the lines at dawn. The water would be perfectly still except for the waves caused by our boat, and everything was quiet. We would usually be in the water before dawn, so we’d have the opportunity to see a beautiful sunrise over the water. I loved the time I got to spend with my father, who was almost always busy during my childhood. I spent more quality time with him in a fishing boat than I did anywhere else during my childhood, I think.

Untangling and baiting the lines, which was usually done in the mid-day heat, often on a small table under a tree, was not nearly as fun, but it taught me the value of focusing on the task at hand no matter how simple it seemed.

I didn’t make much money doing this. My pay was usually a share of the fishing haul and there were many more bad and mediocre days than good ones. However, the other perks – spending time with my dad, those early morning boat rides – made it all worthwhile. Those summers spent fishing still occupy a nice place in my heart.

–Trent Hamm

 Jon: Grocery Clerk

I loved my first summer job, as a checkout clerk at the local grocery store. I started at age 15 and kept working there part-time all through high school and into college — and if it paid better money, I’d probably still be doing it.

For one thing, I enjoyed the actual work: Bagging groceries is like a real-life game of Tetris. You have to fit all manner of shapes into a neat, compact stack — and quickly, because they just keep coming. And yet there are other dimensions, too — you can’t be breaking eggs or squishing bread or putting Clorox in with fruit. For a pretty menial job, it was pleasantly challenging, and by the end of my tenure at Market Basket, I could instantly see how every piece on the conveyor belt should fit together, like I was in The Matrix.

What’s more, you weren’t stuck doing one thing. At some point you’d spend an hour or two shagging grocery carts in the parking lot, getting some fresh air, exercise, and time alone with your thoughts. You might help an elderly person load their groceries into their trunk, and receive a wry smile or good advice. Restocking all the items people leave at the register at the last minute — it’s a lot – was a fun mission. And someone had to tend to the inevitable “clean-up in aisle 10” and put sawdust down when a milk carton broke.

But my favorite part of the job was the people: watching the characters, talking to senior citizens and harried parents, or just giving customers a smile. I like when people come to visit me. And as a grocery bagger or checkout clerk, people literally line up to see you.

Another great perk of a job like that? I never took the work home with me or worried about it after I punched my time card. If you messed up with one customer, you’d get another chance with the next one – a fresh start every 90 seconds.

The only downside was being on your feet all day. Even as a spry teenager, I would come home aching; I can’t imagine enduring that element of the job now. (I remember when I first saw checkout clerks in Europe sitting down at the register — it was a revelation!)

Work Is a Team Sport

Finally – and maybe most importantly – I loved the camaraderie of my teenage job. I didn’t make any sports teams in high school, and I was pretty much a dork. But good, hard work can be a great equalizer.

I bagged groceries alongside popular kids and those who were even bigger outcasts than myself. The shared experience and daily grievances of a low-level retail job put us all in the same boat. I’d find myself chatting with pretty girls I’d never have the courage to speak to in school, and spending lunch breaks with kids of different backgrounds from neighboring towns – people I’d probably never meet otherwise.

We were all on the same team. And on payday, we all won.

–Jon Gorey

Drew: Running a Basketball Camp

The summer I turned 17 might have been the peak of my basketball obsession. I played non-stop, watched basketball anytime I wasn’t playing, and only slept when I wasn’t playing or watching. I had a single-minded focus on improving my skills, and no intention of getting a “real job” if it meant I had to be away from basketball.

But, unfortunately, no one wanted to pay me to play or watch basketball. If I wanted to have any spending money whatsoever, I was going to have to get creative.

I had built a small name for myself in my area by leading our team to the playoffs as a diminutive, feisty point guard. I think a lot of the young kids in the area could relate, since I was never the biggest, strongest, or fastest person on the court. Many of these kids would come up to me after games and want to chat. Remembering that, I decided to see if I could run my own mini summer basketball camps to make extra cash.

I floated the idea to some friend’s parents, and I soon had eight email addresses of potential clients. We all found a week that worked, a friend offered up their backyard court, and boom: I was in business with my first summer camp.

All my little proteges were in fourth and fifth grade. We spent six hours a day for a week learning new skills, breaking down key concepts, and developing our overall games. Everyone was tough, focused, and diligent… in my dreams.

In reality, dealing with eight rambunctious nine-year-olds for six hours a day was like wrangling cats, if all the cats also threw balls at your head, made each other cry, and fought over the water fountain. I think we spent one hour playing basketball for every three we spent yelling and playing dodgeball.

After the first day, I was frustrated. I was supposed to be molding little all-stars, not sternly telling kids that, “No, we weren’t going to be learning how to do a front flip off the trampoline into the pool, because that has nothing to do with basketball.”

But, I quickly realized that I had to let go of my preconceived notions of how the camp would go. You can never expect people to take your passions quite as seriously as you do, and it’s better to accept that rather than force something down a person’s throat. Especially with kids.

Once I loosened up a bit, I had a lot of fun. I mean, I was getting paid to play some hoops and generally have fun with an energized group of kids. It could be worse. The kids that actually wanted to learn went away with some new drills, and the ones who just wanted to have fun certainly did that.

Besides learning about how important it is to go with the flow, I got my first glimpse of a career path for myself that revolved around my own schedule, attitude, and hustle. I went on to gain more basketball training clients, but more importantly I’ve used those same techniques to help build a career that maximizes my freedom.

–Drew Housman

Holly: Summer at Subway

When I was growing up, the teen summer job was a quintessential rite of passage for most of us. Either you played in several sports and didn’t have time to work, or you picked up a seasonal side job to earn some “fun money” for the summer.

I was born in 1980, so it was the mid-’90s by the time I got my first summer job. The economy was rocking (or at least it felt like it), jobs for teens were plentiful, and the money we earned could stretch pretty far. In fact, I vividly remember filling up the tank of my first car for 89 cents a gallon, then cruising up the main drag of our town with my friends. With gas so cheap, that kind of entertainment was as affordable as anything else we could find. So, why not?

My first job was a doozy. At age 15, I was hired to work at the sandwich counter at our local Subway for $4.25 per hour. Since it was a sandwich shop, our main duties were fairly straightforward. We prepared and cut all of the fresh vegetables, cooked bread, made sandwiches, and cleaned up. That was about it.

Well, that should have been it. Although I was just 15 years old, most of my coworkers were older. A few were even adults, or “quasi-adults” — given that title due to their advanced age and definitely not for their maturity level. I was extremely naive and pretty much kept to myself, but my coworkers were constantly embroiled in a bitter power struggle or some type of controversy.

One such controversy took place when someone stole one of the small scales we used to weigh roast beef. Since no one could account for the scale, our adult manager suggested we all chip in $30 to replace it.

I only made $4.25 per hour mind you, and I had nothing to do with the scale’s disappearance. There was absolutely no way I was going to part with a full day’s pay to replace a tiny kitchen scale. I was at that awful job to make money, not to give it back for something I didn’t do.

With the approval of my mother, I refused to pay a single cent toward a new scale. “Doesn’t Subway have the money to replace it?” I thought. It was only later that I realized our boss was probably trying to cover up the situation by replacing the scale herself.

Either way, I quit that job shortly afterward. Not only did it pay almost nothing, but it came with a lot more drama than it was worth.

Summer Jobs and Lessons Learned

Summer jobs for teens might not be as popular as they once were, but they’ll always be around in some shape or form. Whether it’s yards that need mowed, children that need a babysitter, or houses that need scrubbed, there will probably always be some sort of work that an inexperienced teenager could do.

Teens might not always like the work they can get, but there are still valuable lessons to be learned in any job. And sometimes, the best lessons come from the worst jobs. You know – the fast-food jobs of the world. The places where it seems totally normal for the boss to extort pay from teenagers to replace missing or broken equipment, simply because they can.

While I never learned any valuable technical skills from that job, I did learn that the world can be an unfair place – and that some people prefer to keep it that way.

But that wasn’t all I learned. As I schlepped through several awful jobs in my teens and early 20s, I also learned I wanted something better – something more. And maybe that was the most important lesson of all.

–Holly Johnson

What was your first summer job? Do you think it’s harder for teens to get a summer job these days?

Related Articles:

Jon Gorey
Jon Gorey
Contributing Editor

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte's work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications. Notte earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998.

Loading Disqus Comments ...