career, good ideas, Uncategorized

The Expeditor

It was the summer of 1997, and I was looking for a job. I must confess that I did not particularly want to get a job, but I had been told that I needed to get one, so that was that.

My plan was to go to the local strip mall (because they have jobs there, right?), and move systematically from business to business: I’d start with the first establishment—McDonalds—then move on to the second one—Burger King—then on to the third, and so on, filling out a job application at each one, and later if anyone called me back I could maybe go in for an interview. It was a pretty logical strategy.

Except here’s what happened:

I went into McDonalds, asked for a job application, filled it out, and gave it to the guy behind the counter, who took it and said thanks. Then I went next door to Burger King, asked for a job application, filled it out, and gave it to the guy behind the counter. This time, however, the guy behind the counter happened to be the manager. He sort of glanced at my application and asked, “Can you start tomorrow?”

In other words, things got REAL. In that instant, I suddenly realized something that had not yet occurred to me, namely, that there were a lot of places I would prefer to work at over Burger King. Unfortunately, the fact that I had just filled out a job application had (understandably) suggested to the manager that I really wanted to work at Burger King, and I figured I would look pretty stupid if I handed in an application and then immediately said “No thank you”. It was a quandary. I did not want to work at Burger King, but I also did not want to seem stupid. So I said, “Okay.”

Working at Burger King was honestly not a bad first job. I was assigned to work at the front, taking people’s orders, ringing them up, and “expediting” them—which, for the non-fast food workers among you, means putting the actual food on the actual trays. This meant I got to talk to people, and also that I didn’t have to actually flip burgers over the hot burners in the back. Honestly the most unpleasant part of the job was the uniform: dark blue pleated pants that were a little too tight, a polo shirt that was way too big, and a fabric visor that messed up my hair. But those small discomforts aside, it was a decent and pretty valuable experience. I learned what it was like to punch a time clock, what it was like to work hard for somebody else, and what it was like to get a paycheck. And in retrospect, I feel fortunate to have gotten a glimpse into what it’s like to work in the fast food industry.

Fast-forward nineteen years or so. As you may know, I’m once again looking for a job, and, oddly, I find myself thinking about the Burger King experience quite a bit. There are already a couple of super important lessons here that didn’t occur to teenage Sarah, but that adult Sarah should definitely keep in mind. These are fairly basic concepts, but also critical ones:

  1. Do not take a job that you don’t want. Unless, of course, you’re desperate for cash and are worried that you may not have other options, which is a totally different story. But if you feel you have more time to keep looking, keep looking. More importantly, think actively about what job you DO want, and apply for that job, rather than spending your time applying for jobs you’re ambivalent about or definitely don’t want.
  1. Ask questions during the job interview. Hello, teenage Sarah? Did you have any questions about the Burger King job that you wanted to ask the manager before you accepted it? Like about what your duties would be while working at Burger King? Or your hours? Or how much you would get paid?

Which brings me to Part Two of this post. I talked about this next story briefly during my recent interview on Financially Alert (which, by the way, you should check out if you want to learn more about my financial philosophy and preferred snack foods). But I want to bring it up again here.

I of course was not the only expeditor at Burger King; there were many others, and one of them was a boy about my age who had been hired the same week as me. I think his name might have been Chris, so let’s call him Chris. At some point I mentioned to Chris that I made $6.00 per hour, and Chris told me that he made $6.25 per hour. (Or maybe it was $5.00 and $5.25? I’m honestly not sure.)

I don’t know if Chris was telling the truth or not. Perhaps he was, and if so, perhaps there was some legitimate reason why he was making more than I was. Maybe he’d negotiated for more, or maybe he’d worked there the previous summer and had more experience. I definitely remember thinking that it was weird, but I basically accepted it and didn’t ask any more questions.

So, a couple of thoughts on this.

The first is, I want to take a moment to acknowledge how deeply strange it is that different people frequently get paid different amounts of money for doing the exact same job. Depending on the situation, there can be many reasons for this—it could be due to conscious or subconscious prejudice of a variety of types (this is obviously an extremely complicated issue; part of it is explored in a bit more detail here), it could be because one person has been doing the job longer than the other person or has a better performance record, and/or it can be because one person negotiated differently than the other person. I’m not saying I think it’s necessarily bad in all cases, since clearly prejudice is a separate issue from factors like job performance or seniority. But I just want to say, for the record, that I think the existence of these kinds of person-to-person differences in salary is inherently a very odd and curious phenomenon. (If you’re interested, here’s a good Planet Money episode about a company that decided to make all its salaries public, and here is a very interesting post by Penny at She Picks Up Pennies about salary transparency in public education.)

Second, I can’t claim to be a master negotiator, but I do know that it’s important to talk openly about salary, and to ask questions, and to advocate for oneself. I’m happy to say that I advocated for myself and my salary twice this past year, and it was very much worth it both times. Whatever type of work we do, it is of value to our employer and/or our clients, and that is an important point to keep in mind whenever discussing compensation.

That’s all for now. I’m off to find a job I’m excited about, and to ask good questions while doing so.

What was YOUR first job? What did you learn from it?

41 Comments on “The Expeditor

  1. My first income came from babysitting, but that’s a different story. I started trying to get a “real job” when I was sixteen, but I wasn’t very strategic or sensible about it. In retrospect, I wish I had staged a sit-in outside the manager’s office at the bookstore until they hired me. Or at least, I wish I had applied to some mall jobs. But what I actually did was apply to the one big retailer in our neighborhood (a drugstore) and when they didn’t hire me, that was that. I was making good babysitting money by then though so I didn’t pursue it much further. Later, I wished I’d gotten retail experience of some kind because when I lived in New York and needed a side hustle, it was remarkably difficult to get hired at a retail/food job (too many other candidates.) ANYWAY, my first “proper” job ended up being a telemarketing job: I sold season tickets over the phone for a major theater in town. I can’t remember how I found out this existed or ended up getting hired. I was eighteen and the youngest person on the team by quite a bit; it was the winter/spring of my senior year of high school. I’d drive over to the office after school and we’d call people using lead cards from late afternoon through early evening. I think I was paid minimum wage plus commission, but I was good at it so I made pretty decent money in the end — maybe five or six thousand dollars? Which I promptly blew on tuition for an intensive summer theater course I wanted to take. It wasn’t exactly a model to follow (though it did teach me some abiding lessons, such as: I’m good at selling to people; and, I don’t like selling to people because it makes me feel kind of creepy even when the product is good.)

    1. Oh, I’d forgotten about the babysitting. I guess that was really my first job, but I didn’t do enough of it to make much money (by which I mean I made $6/week and spent it all on candy).

      Wow, telemarketing…that’s intense. I’m impressed that you stuck with it and were able to make that much money.

      Yeah, I’ve always wished I’d gotten some actual waitstaff-style food service experience. Both my brothers worked at actual nice, sit-down restaurants during high school, and they were able to use that experience to get other waitstaff jobs later to make extra money.

  2. Oh man, I took the EXACT same approach to getting my first job! Luckily, none of the fast food places ever called me back, despite my outstanding resume of high school extracurriculars and no paying work experience, so I ended up at Old Navy when I finally landed a job.

    I loved working in retail, and learned a lot while I was there – including that “having friends who can introduce you to the manager” is a pretty great strategy to land a job, haha. That’s how I ended up with the Old Navy job, and it has actually held true over the course of my career. Everything that people say about networking and the hidden job market is so, so, so true.

    Awesome post as usual, Sarah!

    1. Haha, I think I just got lucky (or unlucky?) that Burger King happened to be hiring that day! I worked in retail later for years (at a bookstore), and actually it’s been one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had. There were definitely downsides, like the pay, and the boredom when things were slow, but altogether I liked being part of a team and getting to read all the new books!
      And yes, networking…I’m told that’s where it’s at! 🙂

  3. My absolute favorite job was managing a used book store (not my first job, but my first career). Getting promoted out of the job meant…considerably less fun, although more money. I finally ended up in a job I HATED, with the same company that I had worked for in many jobs that I had adored. I learned a lot, but one thing is don’t give up too much just for a nice pay check.

    1. Yes, so true…actually, one of my favorite jobs ever was working at a bookstore (though I wasn’t the manager). I seriously loved it, even though I made only $10/hour, and would have worked 7 days a week if I could have. Salary definitely does not dictate enjoyment.

  4. My first job was as a summer camp counselor, and I honestly felt like I should be paying them to do that job, so I really didn’t mind that I was only getting $130 a week, which netted out to less than minimum wage (but I did get room and board untaxed, so that had to count for something). And I know that everyone got paid exactly the same thing, so that dynamic wasn’t in play at the time. But now… now I know that colleagues of mine and I most likely earn quite different amounts, and because I know I advocate strongly for myself at year-end reviews every year, all I can do is try not to think too much about it. (And, I suppose, be thankful that I benefit from my husband’s much higher salary, even if I suspect part of the reason for it is his Y chromosome — though he is also an incredibly hard worker.)

    We seem to have this culture in the U.S. at least where employers feel that it’s up to them whether to higher someone. But really, as you point out, it’s an interview on both sides. You should also be figuring out if you want that job, and if the employer is a good fit for you. I always love, when I’m interviewing people, when they actually ask those types of questions that make me try to convince them why they want to come work for my company. It helps me remember why I’m lucky to have my job, but also makes me feel happy that those interviewees are looking out for themselves that way. So that’s just my perspective, but if I love when people ask those types of questions, then some other people must, too! 🙂

    1. Yes, I bet other people do like those questions! I haven’t ever hired anyone, but I used to talk on the phone to prospective grad students who wanted to work in my lab, and then let my advisor know my impression of them to help with her decision. And it was so, so different to talk to people who asked me actual good questions about the job and the lab culture, vs. people who asked me a lot of questions about how they should “market” themselves to my advisor in order to get accepted/hired.

      I’ve been thinking about the gender stuff in jobs and careers so much lately. I also just started reading Lean In, which I had heard had gotten sort of mixed reviews, but so far it seems like a really important and insightful book. Looking back, I know that SO many of the job/career choices that I made were influenced at least in part by gender expectations. Not in terms of salary gaps per se, but in a lot of other ways. It’s a lot to think about…

  5. I worked for my dad in high school, which is something Mr. T got to do too for his dad. We were spoiled in that we had real work but had the flexibility to go on family vacations (bosses were gone with us!). This is something we’re hoping to create for our kids so they get the experience, but we’re not stuck home from travel because of Burger King. I do love your thoughts (and your job title!). Working customer service one summer taught me a whole bunch (“You’re personally RUINING MY LIFE”). I should have known when the entire interview was : “Can you handle the F-word?” “You start Monday.”

    1. Ah, that’s cool that you both got to do that! I imagine there could be challenges in working for a parent, but also a lot of benefits.

      Oh gosh, customer service. Yes, people can be pretty rude. Which makes me all the more grateful that I’ve had the experience of working in customer service (both at Burger King and in two subsequent retail jobs). I think it makes me much more aware of how important it is to treat retail and food service workers kindly and not make assumptions about their intelligence or life situation.

        1. Oh gosh, call centers. Now that’s one I’ve never done. I can imagine that a lot of people might be even more likely to be rude on the phone than they would in a face-to-face encounter.

  6. Oh my gosh, I laughed out loud at the idea of turning down a job for which you literally just handed in the application. I’ve employed that same “walk around the mall” job-hunting strategy, so I totally relate!

    The different-pay-for-same-role quandary is tough. It would seem more fair to pay everyone in the same role the same amount, but there are so many other factors that play into it (legitimate and not): seniority, prior experience, performance reviews, that employee’s alternative job prospects, and his or her efforts to negotiate (along with every bias you could imagine — gender, race, age, height…)

    I’ve witnessed awkwardness about discrepancies in salary levels between different roles, too. At one company, word got around that an administrative assistant (perceived as a low-stress, cushy position) was making six figures while people doing the difficult, stressful “in the trenches” work made much less, and people were not happy about it. I guess it’s the same feeling of injustice we might feel about a CEO who drives a company into the ground making millions while people working in important social services can’t even earn a living wage.

    Good luck with the job search!

    1. Ha, I’m glad you can relate to the walking-around-the-mall job-hunting experience, Matt! It’s a pretty weird way to look for employment (and yet so logical!). 🙂

      Ah, yes, that’s a good point about discrepancies (or perceived discrepancies) across different positions. It’s so strange to me that we typically choose not to talk about our salaries with co-workers, but I suppose it makes sense, since when word does get out, it can so easily violate our sense of justice.

      Thanks for the good wishes!

  7. Besides babysitting, by first job was when I was just 12 years old. The head cook for the Masonic Temple in Madison, Wisconsin lived across the street, and she gave me a job in the kitchen there. This was way back in the dark ages (!), but I actually made minimum wage, which was $1.25/hour in those days. That was pretty heady stuff for a 12-year-old. Yes, I have had my social security number and have been paying taxes since I was 12. Hmmmm….. now I wonder about child labor!

    I worked about a half dozen times each month in the afternoons and evenings after school as we served up food for the big crowds of Shriners. It was hard work, setting all the tables, pouring coffee for guests, clearing the tables of hundreds of dishes and stacking them in cupboards after they were put through the industrial dishwasher. It was hard, physical work. Sometimes they had banquets for 1000 people, so you can imagine the clean-up!

    I really learned to work hard on that job. The head cook was fair but demanded a lot. I worked that job until I was 16 and then it was onto other high school jobs- a gig as a waitress and then to a small family market, which I loved.

    Sarah, I loved your story. American kids really are hard workers, and we don’t often give them enough credit. It almost seems to be a rite of passage to sling hash somewhere!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Isabella. 🙂 Yes, it does seem as though a lot of us have at least one food service or manual labor job in our past — and I agree that there are benefits to this. I think if I had somehow landed a cushy office job or internship as a teenager, I would have less of an understanding of what hard work really means, and also how people sometimes treat food service workers (badly). Hopefully I treat food service workers better because of it. Your food service job sounds like it taught you a lot too!
      I actually worked at a small family market as well — it was a farm and roadside farmstand/market, and I LOVED it.

  8. I think I was 14 when I had my first real W-2 job. I worked tech support for an internet company that my friend’s family owned (we’re talking dial-up internet). 🙂 Tech support is a nice way of describing how I instructed customers to reboot their computers when they couldn’t connect. And I know I was paid less than the other employees since I wasn’t a child in the family…

    1. Ah, interesting…I think it’s pretty cool that you can say you had a tech support job at age 14. 🙂 That’s too bad about the pay though. I hope it at least helped you to get other jobs later!

  9. Excellent advice on job hunting, Sarah. Teenagers don’t know a lot of things about giving job interviews so it’s a lot easier for bosses to take advantage of them, which is pretty sad. I think high schools should teach these things at an early age so kids don’t make simple mistakes like this.

    1. Thanks, Fehmeen! Sometimes I wonder if teenagers today are a bit more savvy, what with all the advice available on the Internet, but I for one certainly didn’t know what I was doing! Luckily it turned out okay and I got to learn what it’s like to work in food service.

  10. I feel the exact same way about looking for work now! It’s all a numbers game so I feel that I’m constantly turning in applications with the hopes that a few of them turn into callbacks and hopefully interviews. While I do have the luxury to be picky since we have a lot of savings and my wife makes good money, I do realize that it would be nice to be making an income again to support my family.

    My first job was working at KFC for ONE DAY. I realized that being a spoiled lazy kid I didn’t “have” to work so I made up some lame excuse afterwards and never came back. They still owe me $20 for that four hours I worked! I was too embarrassed to ask for it. My favorite job growing up was a summer working at Blockbuster. I only made like $6/hr, but all I did was talk and watch movies all summer. It’s probably my favorite job ever. It was all downhill from there. Lol.

    1. Yes, a numbers game, well put. It takes a lot of time and energy, but the cool part is that there’s the opportunity to find something really cool that you love.

      KFC for one day, hahaha! I actually waitressed at a Thai restaurant for one day in high school and then quit, because (I’m embarrassed to say) I just hadn’t realized how hard it would be! It was probably for the best though; my grades would probably have suffered if I’d spent the evenings waitressing instead of doing homework…
      Blockbuster sounds fun! I used to work at a bookstore and enjoyed it for similar reasons. 🙂

  11. My first job was a host at a Mexican food restaurant. One day, someone asked me for chips and salsa and my horrific response was “sorry, that’s not my job”. This is why I work for myself…not exactly the best at being an employee 🙂

  12. Not my first job, but I was an expeditor for Red Robin. I had to verify that orders were correct and complete, then take them out to the table. So glad I don’t have to do that ever again! It wasn’t the worst job, but it definitely wasn’t great.

    My first job was when I was 14. I was a receptionist at a hair salon on the weekends. Maybe also one afternoon a week? I can’t remember. Anyway, it wasn’t a bad first job. My first full-time job (during the summer anyway) was working at a movie theater. That was *not* a good job, though the free movies were awesome.

    People are at their worst in a concession line, and they leave a surprising amount of garbage at their seats. (You’re leaving anyway! Take it with you!) But there are certainly worse jobs than those. Even if I was working for $5.25 and really happy because it was 50 cents over minimum wage.

    I learned that I don’t like people. Individuals, probably. But people as a whole? Nope.

    1. Agreed, people are definitely not at their best when standing in any type of line. Well put. 🙂 I later worked at a bookstore, and liked it much, much better, but there were still definitely irate customers at times. Also regarding trash: a surprisingly frequent issue at the bookstore was people trying to hand me their trash (like, put their actual trash into my hand!) and ask me to throw it away for them. I could never quite grasp why they thought that was my job.

      Oh gosh, I’ve heard that movie theater jobs are bad…I almost tried to get one once, but ended up getting a job at a farmstand instead (fewer movies, but at least it was outdoors).

  13. Sarah, you’re at an exciting crossroads as you embark on a new phase of your career! I loved reading your story about Burger King and the things it taught you. For me, my first job was short lived… I worked concessions during one Summer at the Hollywood Bowl for a total of 1 day! Needless to say, I didn’t think through my outcome very thoroughly before I took the job.

    As I get older (and hopefully wiser), the one thing I wish I knew in my early days is to always take a job for what you will become by doing it. Money is a means to an end, but creating the person who you want to ultimately become is priceless. Good luck! Some company/organization will be very lucky to have you. 🙂

    1. That’s such an encouraging comment, Michael, thank you! I think you’re so right about our jobs shaping who we are, but it’s hard to remember that on a daily basis when sending off resumes, so I really appreciate the reminder. 🙂

  14. Sarah, this is great – it’s incredible that every job experience you hold translates to a variety of fields, people, and places you may work. My first jobs I almost received simultaneously – and they’re not so common. One, I was offered a position as a dance instructor at the studio I grew up training at. Two, I came home from work one day to my mom saying “Alyssa! Listen to this posting on Craigslist…” and it just so happened to be a job working for the local RadioDisney station in Portland. I honestly have no idea how I got the chance to start with these jobs, but I am entirely grateful to have held both of those positions for over 6 years while I finished high school & attended college.

    One of the biggest lessons I learned was actually prior to starting work, and that was from my dad. He ALWAYS worked hard, maintained a positive attitude, inserted humor when needed, and cared for people so incredibly much. This translated from family, to friendships, and work. He would instill upon me to keep my values & stay true to him even between the transition of your personal life & work life (because he told me a lot of people would keep the two very separate). I looked up to him because even his co-workers & superiors remember him as loyal and hard working (which he was for our family as well). I took those themes to the work place, and still continue to press on maintaining all he taught me.

    What I love about your experience and ethic is that what you learned even from past experience, builds upon the future of your career. That is fantastic – because every opportunity is a chance to build upon your knowledge, skills and helps with your growth. I am so excited for you as you continue on this journey, and cannot wait to hear about what position you land!

      1. Haha, don’t apologize; long, thoughtful comments are awesome! 🙂 Wow, those really are two amazing first jobs to have. The Disney one sounds like it was partially luck, but the dance instructor one must mean that you were really good — how cool to be offered a job like that at such a young age! And it sounds like you got a ton of encouragement and great modeling from your dad.

        Thanks for the good wishes! It’s such a weird time because I am hopeful, yet also there’s a lot of uncertainty in being unemployed, so I go back and forth on a daily basis in terms of how I feel about it. But no matter what, something will happen at some point, and I’m excited to find out what it will be. 🙂

  15. My first job was a Fashion attendant at Zellers (similar to Walmart in Canada, but Zellers is gone now) when I was 14 years old.

    My biggest takeaway was learning to handle money. 100% of the money I made from that job was spent on “stuff” (I was living with parents = no bills/grocerie/rent). I worked there for 3 years, made $18-22k over those years and by the time I quit, I had $0 saved or invested… it was a big wake-up call!

    1. Wow, Jaymee, that does sound like a wake-up call! I had a similar experience where I lived at home and worked at a bookstore for two years, but since I managed to save $1000 during that time, I didn’t quite make the connection. I was just like, sweet, $1000 (and promptly spent it on traveling). Maybe I would have gotten better with money earlier if I’d hadn’t saved any! That’s a pretty cool lesson that you learned from that experience.

  16. My first job was at Hardees, a fast-food restaurant. I thought I was rich because I was making $3.75 an hour and the minimum wage was $3.35. If I could only go back and try to get myself to save more money. However that job did allow me to save some money to take a school trip to Mexico, which started my love of travel and was my first plane ride at 18.

    1. Hey, that’s pretty great if you were able to save enough to go to Mexico! (But I hear you; there are a lot of times when I wish I’d saved more. Funnily enough, I also remember being really happy about my Burger King wages because they were slightly above minimum wage at the time. 🙂

  17. This makes me want to ask for a raise.

    My first job was a camp counselor position. When you do the math, I made somewhere between $0.50 and $0.80/hour.

    Talk about big money!

    I just started a new job with a low base salary where your commission/bonus is supposed to make up for your low wages…we’ll see how this works.

    1. Oh wow, yes, I had heard camp counselor positions were pretty low-paying, but $.50 per hour is even lower than I would have guessed! I hope you at least enjoyed being a counselor.
      I hope your new job works out well in terms of the commission!

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