Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Summer Jobs

Summer Jobs

I’ve been on the road most of the day, so in the spirit of the season, a slightly edited reflection from a few years ago...

This time of year, when I keep waiting for that summer lull that keeps not coming, I find it helpful to reflect on one of the very best parts of having a real job: not having to find a summer job.

Finding summer jobs in high school and college was bad enough, but at least it felt age-appropriate. Since summer teaching gigs were few and far between in my graduate program (I got my first one after my fifth year in the program), I was still looking for summer jobs at 25. That’s just wrong.

The summer job panic usually started in April. By early May, I’d usually be in a combination of depression and panic.

There isn’t much good to be said about most summer jobs. They pay badly, you’re almost always the peon, and (almost by definition) they involve doing work you really don’t want to do. They can help forestall any undue sense of entitlement, since daily degrading combined with low pay will do a number on any excess self-esteem with which you might be burdened.

Crappy non-academic summer jobs I’ve held:

- Dishwasher

- Parking lot attendant

- Door-to-door canvasser (An awful job, but you do develop a pretty good sense of real estate.)

- Piston ring tester (We used Scotch tape. I’m not making that up. This is why I’ve never bought an American car.)

- Receptionist

- SAT Prep instructor (twice)

- Supermarket stock boy (I got fired from that for stacking canned beets too slowly. The shame!)

- Customer Service Rep (I drank more that summer than in the rest of my life, combined.)

- Mover

- AIDS Walk recruiter (lots of compliments on the little blue baseball cap we had to wear)

- Intern (where I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer)

And the ultimate depression-inducing, college-motivating, holy-crap-if-I-had-to-do-that-for-a-living-I’d-kill-myself job...

- The Ice Factory

The ice factory bears explanation. You know those 8 pound bags of ice in convenience stores? The ones you buy for parties? Someone makes those. My job, for 8 hours a day at $3.50 an hour (minimum wage at the time was $3.35), was to pick up the 8 pound bags of ice off a lazy Susan and stack them on a wooden pallet, for the forklift to take to the saran wrapper, and then to the truck. Naturally, this entailed working in a freezer, so the ice wouldn’t melt. For 8 hours a day.

I learned a lot that summer. Lessons of the ice factory:

- If you work in a freezer 8 hours a day lifting heavy objects, you burn an astonishing amount of calories. Everybody brought huge lunches, and we all lost weight. Calories are actually units of heat. If you want to lose both excess weight and your will to live, I can’t recommend this enough.

- People whose actual, not-just-seasonal jobs are in the ice factory are prone to odd enthusiasms. One guy spent his time developing an intricate theory explaining that Phil Collins was actually a space alien. (“Sussudio? What’s that? Space code! Abacab? Space code!”) Another had what I would call an unhealthy fascination with the guitarist Allen Holdsworth.

- Different brands of bagged ice come out of the same vat. One brand’s bag memorably claimed that its ice melted more slowly than other brands. We checked. It didn’t.

- As of the mid-1980's, feminism had not yet made meaningful inroads into the culture of ice factories.

- Some people can discourse knowledgeably about the relative merits of the food in the various jails throughout their home county. These people make your food. I’m just sayin’.

- Just because a guy is five-foot-four and missing a few fingers, doesn’t mean he can’t slam-dunk an 8 pound bag of ice in the middle of a stack fifteen bags high.

- Disgruntled workers have ways of Sticking It To The Man. Among these ways is peeing in the ice vat. There’s a reason I don’t buy bags of ice. If you do, first, hold the bag up to the light. If the ice isn’t perfectly clear, don’t buy it. Trust me on this one. Seriously.

- $3.50 an hour adds up to...let’s see, carry the seven...I think the mathematical term is “bupkus.”

Compared to those, even the longest days here aren’t bad at all. It’s all about perspective.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s the worst summer job you’ve had?

I realize this is against the spirit of the post, but I mostly had good summer jobs, like walking dogs. The best, by far, however, was being a lifeguard, which was a) easy and b) left a lot of time for reading in the guard shack between shifts on the stand. The sexual fringe benefits were also excellent.

The only "bad" summer job I had was working at a law firm, and even that was pretty damn good. Reasonable bosses and hours, etc. I, however, didn't take to heart its lessons and went to law school anyway, though I did, thankfully, quit after a year.
As I was reading, I feared that you were leaving out the Ice Factory. Perhaps it's my engineering perspective that leads me to remember these other lessons.

* The trade-off of high mass and few repetitions vs low mass and high repetitions in weightlifting really is true. That summer may have been when my arm muscles were in their best shape.

* If you are buying machines to operate in a freezer, choose machines that were designed for use at cold temperatures. Machines that are intended for closing bags that contain hot bread will not work as well when the bags are filled with ice.

I think that at least three of us ice factory summer employees now have PhDs. I hope the shift supervisor isn't taking credit for that.
I think that at least three of us ice factory summer employees now have PhDs. I hope the shift supervisor isn't taking credit for that.

He should apply for a Pipeline grant!
1) Typing and poofreading mimeograph stencils (you may be too young to remember those, Dean Dad). You type (on an old manual typewriter) the text onto these blue, wax coated sheets. You can't actually see what you have typed unless you hold them up to a very bright light. That means you go over to the (open, because no AC) window and try to see if light is coming through the areas where the key struck. I'm not kidding. If there is a mistake, you put the sheet back in the typewriter, dab on a toxic chemical, wait for it to dry, and re-type. Takes hours to create a usable template.

2) Key punch operator. Again, you're probably too young. Sit at a console where, when you hit a key, a die punches a hole in the punch card, very loudly and with vibrations. You have to hit the keys 10,000 times per hour. Again, I'm not kidding.

3) Compared to those, camp counselor where you only deal with bugs, poison ivy, mud, and frightened kids who had never been out of the city was wonderful!!!
Well, I will carry that bit about peeing in the ice vat to my grave. Yuck.

I also got fired from a supermarket job as a teenager, the only job I've ever been fired from. It's apparently a tough field, but the humiliation of not hacking it is a good precursor to a job in higher ed.

What I liked about my summer jobs was that they were filled with solvable problems. I spent several summers serving coffee to people. It was hard and surprisingly dirty work but I was good at it, and once you serve the customers and clock out, you're done. Now my life is an endless sea of ongoing projects. I am constantly trying to goad folks that I have no authority over to produce things for me, answer my questions, etc. The coffee shop job was so simple. But at least I work in a clean office now, and don't smell like donuts at the end of the day. This might sound like a good thing, but it's not - donuts are very greasy!
A dedicated liberal who nonetheless refuses to have the UAW build his cars? Seems counter-intuitive.

But typical of most liberals of my acquaintance.
Like Anon at 6:18, my summer jobs involved the serving the public since I am a female. These jobs were in the middle 60's.

Busperson in a busy downtown cafeteria- learned how to not be seen or heard while taking care of people. Bone tiring work with discrete duties which I could leave at the end of the day.

Sales clerk in an upscale department store. Loved the job helping women choose accessories for their clothes, body type, hair, etc. Learned no matter how sophisticated and beautiful a lady may appear, she worried about her appearance like I and my friends did. Beautiful appearance is often dependent on available money.

Waitress in an amusement park cafe. First encounter with the business attitude of "sell customers the big size cola when they don't specify the size".

Call center for getting people to subscribe to magazines.

Waitress in the city Greyhound type bus station for buses which took people to other towns and states back in the day. I saw and served people from many economic levels. The economically better off people had comfortable cars for trips or could afford an expensive plane ride.

Carhop in a local drive-in while in my senior year of college. We only had Stafford Loans (National Defense Student Loans) back then and they usually only were enough to pay a semester's tuition. A summer job helped pay for state college.

I learned what it is like to be bone tired at the end of the day, some people were nice no matter what their economic level or appearance, some people were rude no matter what their economic level and appearance, and that I really didn't want to have jobs like those temp jobs for the rest of my life. Hard, tiring, low paying jobs. Kept me focused on getting my degree.

Now I have a passion for my cc teaching because I know what the jobs are like for some of my students if they don't get an education.

My worst also involved working in a refrigerated warehouse. I shoveled ground meat. Giant stainless steel troughs of ground beef, pork, and chicken that I had to shovel into the hoppers of three patty-making machines. This was on the swing shift. You didn't go home until all the troughs were empty.

On the plus side, everything was clean and I left not at all frightened or disgusted by the supermarket meat patties we made. On the minus side, everything else.

I was not on that job for long.
I kind of want to say "working in the bearing warehouse", but that wasn't actually that bad. Yes, it was about 90F and 90% humidity, and dusty, and the job involved moving heavy, dirty boxes of bearings from shelves overhead - boxes which had a tendency to break open and rain greasy bearings on your head - but the environment was friendly and informal, and you got to move around.

No, worse than that was my office job. The office was also about 90F and there was no air movement, and I had to wear a tie. I sat at a - well, "desk" is too grandiose a title for it. I sat at a stand for a mainframe terminal, from which I could see absolutely nothing except cubicle walls. And for eight hours a day, uninterrupted, my job was to compare columns of numbers in a printed binder with columns of numbers on the green-screen terminal. If I found a discrepancy, I changed the entry on the terminal. And that was it. Staring at columns of numbers, with absolutely no context, uncomfortable and in stifling heat, for eight hours straight, is the very definition of "mind-numbing".
This brings back memories of some of my early crappy summer jobs.

I grew up in an agricultural area on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland. The first job I had was working in a tomato-packing plant, where I assisted people who received tomatoes which had delivered by local farmers and packed them into crates. I remember the job as being very frustrating because the wire bindings of the empty crates always seemed to get tangled with each other, making it difficult to get the next crate into place to receive the flood of tomatoes. I always got behind, and everyone else was always shouting at me to get it moving. The entire scene was reminiscent of the famous *I Love Lucy* episode, with Lucy and Ethel working on an assembly line trying to get pies packed into boxes and always falling behind.

My next summer job was at Ocean City, Maryland, where I washed dishes at a hotel restaurant located on the boardwalk. The pay was lousy, only 19 bucks a week, as I remember. But at least I was on the beach. In pursuit of better pay, I quit and took another job at a pizza place on the boardwalk. That job only lasted a day, after which my boss fired me because I couldn’t move the pizzas into the oven fast enough, reminiscent of my first job at the tomato packing plant. Now jobless, I spent a few days pounding the boardwark in a fruitless search for another job. Becoming desperate, I tucked my tail between my legs and begged for the return of my old job washing dishes at the hotel. They took me back, but one morning my boss came in and told us that the restaurant was going to close. Out of a job again. However, the summer season in Ocean City was almost over and it was just about time to go back to college, so it wasn’t too bad.

Next summer, I worked as a clerk in a grocery store in Ocean City. This was a pretty good deal overall, and I lasted out the whole summer season before I had to go back to school. But working in a summer resort meant that you had to work 7 days a week and had very little time off.

Once in graduate school, I no longer had to worry about summer jobs, since I was a research assistant for my thesis adviser and was supported by grants from NASA, NSF, and AEC.

Well, as an adjunct, I have to keep looking for summer jobs even though I am now 50 years old and have a PhD. Do you know how hard it is to find a job these days if you are 50 and have a PhD? I am looking for FT jobs, but I will have to leave the classroom. I have been advised to lie on my resume and to never, ever mention the PhD.
My most boring wad one that involved stamping dates on insurance policies, and recording upon a notebook the day a policy number had been issued. Undoubtedly a job that is appeared with computers, but that's how they kept track of those days.

The best ever was in high school, when I worked for a company whose switchboard was one of the old fashioned ones where you had the plugs on long cords. (think Lily Tomlin's operator.)
You have be beat aoo to hell. In order, beginning at age 16:

16: Grocery story stock clerk and cashier
17: Ditto
18: Retail route salesman (OK, milkman). One of my stops was a house of ill repute, and, believe me, the delivery people *did not* get past the kitchen door...but I sold them a huge amount of milk and cottage cheese, and they paid the entire balance, every week, in case. Good customer.
19: Order filler in the largest wholesale candy and tobacco supplier in Indianapolis. I ran the cigarette tax-stamping machine.
20: Laborer, Indianapolis Board of Flood Control. An effective organization--Indy hadn't had a significant flood since the 1920s. Hard work, but good co-workers.
21: Flood control again during the day, and the grocery store in the evenings...about th start grad school and really needed cash.

And that was my last summer job until I got a tenure-track job that came with guaranteed summer teaching...

Good times...
Starting at 14, I worked as a preschool aid, a babysitter / nanny, receptionist at a church and then at 16 lifeguard and swim instructor.

Lifeguard/swim instructor paid $10 per hour at a time when minimum wage was $4.50. Having access to that job and the $/fun that came with it is one of the main reasons I insisted that my kids learn to swim starting at age 4. My sister managed a pool in the summer during high school and leveraged that "management experience" into a director position at a small non-profit right out of college. It's a great field to get a first job in!

When I went to college, my parents agreed to pay my living expenses if I would go to school full time. I took 15 units each summer and had a blast and graduated on time (unlike my sibs who all needed extra time).
Fish fryer at a "fast fish" store. Frying cod in boiling oil required my full zen-like attention. Did you know that it is safer to put your hand in the boiling oil (covered by batter) than to drop the fish in and get splattered by the boiling oil?

If you think going home smelling like donuts is bad ... I went straight to the shower when I got home.
I'll give the same answer I gave before: one summer, I spent two weeks working at a place that gave pre-employment urine drug tests. I administered said tests.
Nice post, thanks for the posting.Keep posting...
I have a PhD, teach hs, and resent the nostalgia in many of these posts because I still pick up work in these months by necessity. I've cleaned toilets, served and cleared food, painted houses, worked construction, became a handyman, and hope to tutor though I'm not sure if the toilets will stink less.
Worst summer job, mentally: working for an insurance company where the boss actually watched me stuff envelopes and then told me I was doing it wrong. I was halfway through a master's degree, but she believed that if I folded 5 pieces of paper all at the same time, it would be more efficient than folding two or three at a time and collating them. That's the shortest amount of time I've ever stayed at a job. The mind games got old and the promised pay raise after 3 months still hadn't arrived after 6 (it dropped to PT in the fall, but by October I could see it was a losing proposition to stay).

Worst summer job, physically: cleaning university apartments between tenants. Cleaning for 40 hours a week is exhausting, not unlike the ice factory except that instead of being cold we worked in apartments without A/C, "enjoying" the summer heat while scrubbing. Then I'd work at Sears in the evening. I kept losing weight and had to resort to reading nutrition labels to find foods with the most calories because I couldn't pack any more in. It wasn't demoralizing (and was about a zillion times better than the insurance job I'd had the year before), but it made me grateful every day that I had options that some of my year-round co-workers did not.
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