Wise Bread's First Job Stories

Photo: gchutka

From high-schoolers getting their first summer jobs to recent college graduates starting their first "career" positions, early summer is a big time for new jobs. We here at Wise Bread have told you about some of our worst jobs, but we haven't necessarily told you about our first ones — those scrappy, minimum-wage gigs where we made as many (if not more) errors than good moves. (See also: Making Your First Paycheck Work for You)

Enjoy these first-job stories from some of our writers, in all of their awkward glory.

Fair Game

Marla Walters: My first real job was sort of odd. I was hired at a fairground, and I think I was 16.

At first they had me doing clerical work, but after a week or so I started checking in fair entries, issuing passes, and eventually I worked out in the barns with the livestock owners. There were great work ethic lessons to be learned, although at 16 I was more excited about the paychecks.

A 4-H and FFA kid, I was in my element and pretty comfortable with everything except for the “carnies,” who were pretty rough. I kept my distance.

They were long days. Judging would start as early as 8 a.m., which meant I needed to be on deck by 7 a.m., and I didn’t usually leave until the carnival lights were glowing.

Judging was serious business, whether rabbits, quilts, or pickles were being evaluated.

I listened to a lot of country-western music while in the office, learned to drink black coffee, and got some autographs from minor celebrities who were doing the fair “circuit.” I lived on corn dogs, fresh cinnamon rolls, and boiled corn-on-the-cob with lots of butter and salt. Fair food rocks.

My boss, Bob, was wiry, leathery, chain-smoking old cowboy. When we drove to town to the feed store, he liked me to drive so that he could tell stories and chain-smoke. I had barely known how to drive a stick, but I had to get good at it, fast. When he told me I could drive a stick like a real truck driver, I felt pretty proud of myself. When you can back up to the loading dock of a feed store, baby, you are somethin’.

I still love the Americana of a fair and fondly remember days filled with 7 a.m. sheepdog trials, petting zoos, cotton candy, and late-night stock-car races. It was a great first job.


Kentin Waits: I entered the working world modestly at age 15 as a janitor at a local department store called Spurgeon’s (think JCPenney’s without as much stuff). For sweeping, mopping, emptying the trash, and organizing hangers, I was paid the handsome sum of $2.86 per hour (isn’t it funny how we never forget the wage of our first job?).

After distinguishing myself by classifying all the clothing hangers in the storeroom by type (a blessing to the sales clerks who did all the stocking), I was “promoted” to candy counter clerk. This was the old-fashioned kind of candy counter — bulk candy in huge display cases sold by the pound. I’m sure I ate most of the profits during the slow days, but through the black magic of teenage metabolism, it never showed.

Spurgeon’s didn’t last very long after Walmart came to town. But by that time, I was out of college and making my way in more professional (and much less calorically-intense) jobs.

Sort-of Handy Helper

Julie Rains: My first job with a regular paycheck was as a lifeguard at a community pool. But as a child, I was an entrepreneur and found a few handy-girl jobs around the neighborhood (before I was old enough to babysit!). For example, a friend and I made a list of 10-15 odd jobs that we could handle and walked around our neighborhood introducing ourselves to people and offering these specific services.

We were hired to rake leaves by a young woman who I am pretty sure thought we were adorable. She doted on us and even made snacks. I wanted to do a great job, so in addition to raking the leaves, we also cleared out the ivy in which the leaves were embedded. Obviously, as a child, I had not acquired a love of climbing ivy; instead, I saw it as a weed to be removed. When I told her what we did, the young woman tried to disguise her shock (and disappointment) — she was very nice and quickly paid us and sent us on our way. 

So, an early life lesson for me was to be clear about the job to be performed and realize that the customer may have different likes and dislikes than me.

(Very Little) Attention to Detail

Andrea Karim: My first job out of college was working for an educational publishing company based on Long Island. I worked as an assistant to the Vice President of Business Development (or something like that, I barely remember). My job was to book travel for consultants and my boss, handle their expense reports when they returned, and provide our accounting department with billing information. I spent a great deal of time on the phone with a travel agent.

It quickly became obvious that I was not to be known for my attention to detail. Travel plans became confused, hotels were booked miles from the closest convention center. Incorrect billing information was given to schools in other regions of the country, resulting in angry calls to our President and CEO from principals and superintendents. My lack of interest in the tasks placed before me was obvious; while I enjoyed the ideas and artwork inherent to the publishing industry, I was certainly not the best person to handle the nitty-gritty details that come with running a publishing house. I was thrilled to leave the position after only six months, and I'm pretty sure that my boss was delighted with my departure as well. Thereafter, I never accepted another administrative position. It's simply not my forte.

More Customer Than Employee

Janey Osterlind: My first job was as a sales associate for Footlocker at the local mall. I got the job because, like a lot of teenagers, I wanted some financial independence and I thought it would be nice to have some extra spending money. Little did I know that working for minimum wage for less than ten hours per week could hardly satisfy my shopping habit! That was my first experience with directly equating hours worked to new shirts purchased. I also learned that it was, in fact, possible to end up earning negative dollars during a shift — if you work retail, and you get a discount on merchandise in your store, you have to have the self-discipline to avoid using up your paycheck before earning it. I did end up with a lot of nice tennis shoes, though.

Working at Footlocker wasn’t all bad. I initially got the job through a friend, and we passed a lot of slow hours gossiping about the boys at school, our weekend plans, and cute customers. When the store was busier, I helped customers find the best shoes for them. The experience taught me patience, the ability to juggle several things at once, and how to listen to others’ needs. Even though my day job now couldn’t be more different from that first job as a sales associate, it still helped teach me some of the valuable skills I use today. All in all, not a bad first job!

Fairy Tale Princess on Display

Meg Favreau: I grew up in an area of Northern New Hampshire where one of the biggest summer employers was a small amusement park called Story Land. I worked there for four summers and loved it...well, most of it. See, soon after I was hired at the awkward age of 14, I was informed that one of my duties would be performing as Cinderella. As a budding actor, I was thrilled and honored that I'd be cast in such a role so soon after starting work.

What I didn't realize is that there's a good reason the new employees were cast as Cinderella — the job was exhausting! Cinderella's fancy gown was a sweat trap in the muggy New England summers, and the day was filled with a constant rush of people waiting to take tours of the castle, get hugs, and take pictures. It was wonderfully rewarding to see my work translate into so many happy kids, but by the end of the day, my legs would ache, and my voice was hoarse.

The worst incident I had as Cinderella, however, was towards the end of the summer, when a particularly large tour group was in the castle. See, all of the employees who played Cinderella shared the same costumes, and after a few months, things started to fall apart. On this day, I was wearing a hoop skirt under the gown, and part of the lowest plastic ring in the hoop had come undone and was sticking out. It wasn't very noticeable to guests, but it was enough that, as I backed into the ballroom to allow space for more visitors, I accidentally stepped on it.

I immediately lost my balance and fell backwards. This would have been bad enough, but because I was wearing that lovely hoop skirt, not only did I fall on my butt, but the hoop skirt lifted my gown up high so everyone could get a perfect look at my pink heart-patterned underwear.

From that day forward, I always wore shorts under the dress.

Do you have any great first job stories? Share them in the comments!

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Guest's picture

I'd love an article about how people lost their first jobs! Or the first time they got fired, or quit, etc, and what they learned from THAT!