What’s life for the American youth without the summer job?

That really deep thought ran through my head the other day after talking with a friend about his college age son’s summer job at a fast food place in Gulf Shores. He explained that while his son originally had visions of a “beachier” type of job that involved renting jet skis or working as head oil man in the Flora-Bama bikini contests, he’d ended up frying chicken and potatoes until late in the evening at a fast food joint.

My friend and I both agreed that while the oil man position might indeed be more fun in countless ways, a good, tough job is what a young man or woman needs these days to prepare for life in the American workforce. To slap on my curmudgeon hat here, I’d say many of those I’ve met coming out of school frequently seem to lack some basic understanding that you have to work your way up to head oil man. It just doesn’t happen because you have a degree.

Yes, I’m well aware some other grizzled columnist probably wrote that exact same thing in 1989 as I was getting out of college, but that guy’s probably dead now and it’s my turn.

The summer job really is the training ground for tomorrow’s mediocre employee. Growing up (most of) my siblings and I were dying to get a job as soon as possible because – A) it meant getting out from under my mother’s crushing list of chores, and B) you could drive at 15 in Mississippi and saving up for some wheels was of paramount importance.

I know one of my first summer jobs was building trophies at the family-owned bowling alley. It was pretty low-tech and involved screwing gold and silver bowlers onto marble and a lot of bathroom breaks in which my cousin Russell and I would swoop into the snack bar and make a “suicide” of several types of soft drink. The sugar made us pretty goofy, which didn’t go over really well with our manager Joan, who never seemed terribly impressed.

Russell and I got fired one day after the phone rang and someone pulled the classic bowling alley prank of asking the person answering if they have 10-pound balls. When the alley worker answers in the affirmative the prankster makes a comment about the person’s ability to walk with such an issue and hangs up. Joan falling for this one sent us over the edge laughing and she fired us.

Yes, we got fired from our family-owned business. Lesson one learned. Even when working for family you have to try.

I moved on from there to teaching swimming lessons in the junior college swimming pool. That was hundreds of children every hour being taught by 30 or so teens standing in relatively cold water for four hours each morning. The pool was enormous, but I suspected the filtering system was losing a battle against the number of people peeing in the pool each day. The mother of one of my students actually told him to get back in and go when he tried to head to the little boys’ room.

At some point the top layer of my skin from mid-chest down peeled off, which I’ve always thought might have been pee-related. But I was a quick learner and noticed the fat minimum wage money and the glory went to the kids who became lifeguards. They taught class to older kids while standing on the side of the pool, out of the urine. And they all had killer tans and looked cool working in the afternoons during “free swimming.”

A lifesaving certificate later and I was among the bronzed gods of the junior college pool community. A year or so later I moved up the food chain and went to lifeguard at the country club. Life was very good. Summer jobs had already taught me how to climb within an industry.

Other than one unfortunate incident where I accidentally caused a mustard gas explosion by pouring chlorine granules and acid into a skimmer at the same time, things went well. The boy who was having trouble breathing came around before his redneck father beat me up and summer jobs had taught me crisis management.

Dating the boss’ girlfriend did not end as smoothly however, but there were good HR lessons learned there as well.

After my junior year of college, much like my friend’s son, I sought a beachier-type of summer employment. A roommate had an internship at a TV station in Naples, Fla. and I tagged along to work as head oil man in whatever bikini contest spot they had. Unfortunately my dreams were dashed when I realized summer in Naples is the off-season and everyone under 112 years of age leaves. That’s summer jobs teaching the importance of research.

Soon I was working at a K-Mart that was preparing to open. After realizing the organizational structure was bedlam, I, along with a guy who revealed he was using an alias and had an extensive criminal history, rustled up a few less observant guys and began ordering them around forming our own work crew. We were definitely headed for upper management. But the sheriff closed the place down on day three because some dolt forgot to file for occupancy. Summer jobs had taught the importance of greasing the politicos.

An uncle in Jacksonville, Fla. offered a job painting houses the rest of the summer, but I was too broke to afford the gas. Somehow I found work assisting a guy building one of those greenhouse parts of a Wendy’s in 103-degree heat. Summer jobs taught me right there how much certain jobs can suck.

Painting houses the rest of the summer certainly wasn’t as glorious as lifeguarding at the country club, but I did learn a lot about working with people of different educational backgrounds, including one guy who had only passed third grade and turned every conversation to sex. I developed a game of starting conversations about totally unsexy things just to see how he’d work it back. He was genius.

And I learned to paint, which has come in handy considering the old houses I’ve lived in. Thanks for that summer jobs!

So for all those teens and young adults out there learning the employment ropes during their summer jobs, take heart. You’re learning invaluable lessons, especially if you’re building a Wendy’s greenhouse.


Nothing like traveling on the tax-payer’s dime!

Nothing like traveling on the tax-payer’s dime!