It’s April… many people are graduating from college in May (including our daughter). Some of them already have jobs lined up (not our daughter). There is much anxiety out there about working. I wonder how many people are reading Penelope Trunk as they panic about post-graduation possibilities. Back when I was at the beginning of the golden years of rock ‘n roll, I didn’t think so much about careers but mostly about how to find a job to make enough money to 1) have some spending money, and 2) stay in college. I was not really picky about work because when you grow up at the edge of financial calamity, you never feel entitled to a high-paying job when you know you have very few skills. At the beginning of your working life, your job skills (when you graduate with a non-practical degree) are limited to showing up on time, appropriately dressed, behaving cheerfully, finding out what exactly they want you to do, doing it in the best way possible, and planning your next move. No one found me a job when I was young. I had no mentors, didn’t have a clue what I could do, but somehow ended up eventually getting more degrees, and actually doing things I wanted to do all along but just didn’t know exactly what they were at the time. I’ve had a varied “career” but the beginnings of it all were nothing exciting.
So, I began to think about all the jobs I’ve done in the past and I decided to try to list them all. And I realized that no matter what job I did, there was something good about it, I learned something from the experience, and I can do almost anything for a year or two. In what may be the twilight of my working life, I can look back on half a century of jobs and see that I have done the usual things and then some not so usual:
- Babysitting was my first official “job” for which I was paid money, which likely started out in the 1960s at about 50 cents an hour. I babysat from the age of 12 until about half-way through college when I had better things to do with my time and other ways to make money. I even spent an entire summer once as a nanny. Best thing about the job: figuring out that child care was not something I wanted to do for pay over the long-term. What I learned: managing kids is really hard.
- Bud’s Chicken Take-out, Lake Worth, FL – my first “real” job, meaning a place where you go to work, in this case, after school and during the summers for a couple of years. In 1967, it was a very small place with no eat-in, only take-out, and not air-conditioned because Bud was afraid it would change the taste of the chicken. (?) Think about South Florida in the summer. Us girls wore cute smocks over our white blouses and sweated rivers standing in front of heat lamps that kept the fried chicken warm while we filled customers’ orders. Best thing about the job: free fried chicken after work. What I learned: food service and I are not a good fit.
- Department store clerk: South Florida, 1960s/1970s. Working retail over holidays and summers was a fill-in thing for many young people in those years. Seemed like everyone spent some time in department stores. Best thing about the job: seeing what’s on sale before getting off work. What I learned: how to work a cash register.
- Bookkeeping assistant: for Montgomery Ward’s in West Palm Beach, Florida, the summer after my freshman year. I was the only person in the office with any college education. The boss asked me to quit school and work there full-time! I did not. Best thing about the job: the paycheck. What I learned: bookkeeping is boring.
- Typesetter: at college in Florida in the early 1970s, I worked for the student newspaper in the evenings in a windowless office full of cigarette smoke. Before the advent of desktop publishing, typesetting of printed material was produced by hand using small sharp tools. I started out as a journalism major so it seemed like a logical job. I changed my major however. Best thing about the job: reading the paper. What I learned: I could write better than a lot of the newspaper writers.
- Resident advisor: This was a bonanza job that I did for 3 years in college. It paid well, I had a private room as part of my job, and in those days, it wasn’t a job that seemed like police work. Best thing about the job: it paid for braces to straighten my teeth. What I learned: how to listen and how to ask questions.
- Dude ranch laundry worker: After the summer at Monkey Wards, I was determined not to go home to South Florida for any more summers. By Christmas of sophomore year, I had applied to three resorts in different parts of the country. I didn’t care what the work was, I just wanted to be in a beautiful place with less humidity. And I did just that – for 3 summers – Moosehead Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The first summer, I sewed curtains, cleaned cabins and waited tables. The next two summers I ran the laundry room. I lived for my summers in Wyoming. Best things about the job: Grand Teton National Park; riding horses; floating the Snake River. What I learned: how to clean bathrooms & make beds properly, and how to rock climb (on my one day off each week).
- Ward clerk: Eventually, I finished taking classes for a master’s degree in anthropology in the mid-1970s and needed a job in order to pay the rent while I wrote a thesis. The highest paying grunt job in Gainesville, Florida at the time was ward clerking at the university’s teaching hospital. I had an interest in medicine anyway, so did that job for two years while deciding what to do next. It was a clerical job on a pediatric ward, full of very sick children. Thus it was emotionally wrenching. But the experience in a large hospital was invaluable. Best thing about the job: participant observation in a medical setting – how things work, what people do, how sick people can get. What I learned: how to hold a kid still while someone does a procedure, and how to keep important information organized. I also figured out that a career in hospital administration did not interest me. Also, that I did not want to go to medical school or to nursing school.
- Research assistant: While I was ward clerking on the 4 to midnight shift, I worked for about 6 weeks during the day interviewing caregivers at an institution for people with severe disabilities – it was actually a type of evaluation, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was just the interviewer. It was a place called Sunland Training Center in Florida. Best thing about the job: getting paid to participate in research. What I learned: how to interview people in order to get good information.
- Editorial assistant: Eventually I went back to school for another degree, this time in medical anthropology. While in school, I worked for my advisor who was an editor for a professional journal. I helped with editing the articles before they were published. Best thing about the job: reading articles in my area of interest. What I learned: editing skills (immensely useful).
- Ambulance driver and EMT: Fast forward to the early 1980s in southern New Mexico where we happened to be living. I decided to volunteer on the local ambulance service after taking an 81-hour EMT course, taught by the two local National Health Service Corps physicians (one of which was my husband). For one year, I worked part-time driving the ambulance and responding to emergencies. Best thing about the job: adrenaline rush & orange jumpsuits. What I learned: emergency first aid.
- Independent consultant: Yes, indeed, quite a catch-all label. Tells you nothing. However, in 1983, we moved to West Africa. Eventually I found work as an “on-the-ground” liaison to international development organizations that needed someone local to help them do their work. Living and working in Niger and Kenya for seven and a half years, learning to function in another culture, learning French — added to my research training — meant I had skills I could contribute to international public health. I always had work which was different, interesting, challenging and paid well. My favorite consultancy was working in Uganda on a project with traditional healers. Best thing about the jobs: flexibility and my income was not taxed because I found the jobs while based overseas. What I learned: working from home is great; French; Kiswahili; rhinos are dangerous; how to be adaptable.
- Program evaluator: Now we get to what I really “do”. I was trained as a social scientist in how to do research, but I realized eventually that 1) I did not want to teach anthropology in a university and 2) I didn’t really have “my” research that I was dying to do. Yes, I have done research. Yes, I have published some papers. But I did not care to jump onto the tenure track and anyway, there are not many jobs. In 1991, when we moved back to the US, I was hired as an “evaluation officer” on a federally funded international HIV prevention project, not because I was an evaluator (I was not) or because I had experience in HIV-AIDS prevention (I didn’t), but because I had lived overseas for 7 years, because I spoke French, because I was a social scientist, and mainly because I was easy to get along with! I worked on that project for six years, then consulted part-time for another decade as an evaluator, and then went to work full-time about 2 ½ years ago on an NIH grant as a program evaluator. I live in Wisconsin. And I really like my job! Best thing about the jobs: The work I do is practical, applied and useful because it helps people figure out 1) what they intend to do (goals and objectives), 2) how they’ll know they did it (metrics), and 3) where the information’s coming from (data sources). What I am learning: Evaluation is tricky, needed, and very, very marketable.
- Direct sales consultant: I had to add this as a postscript because I am still technically a direct sales consultant with the Creative Memories company – a 23-year-old supplier of scrapbooking and digital image management products. I’ve been a CM consultant for 10 years and created at least 80 scrapbook albums of family photographs and stories. Best thing about the job: getting scrapbooking supplies at consultant cost instead of retail, and meeting so many people who I would never otherwise encounter. What I am learning: running a home-based business is a lot of work and takes time away from scrapbooking.
What I wish I could say: as a post-postscript, I have to say that if my life had been different, I would have liked to say simply that I am a writer or a photographer or a musician. I do all those things, but not professionally, and not for money. “Do what you love” was not advice that I heard 30 or 40 years ago. I did not have the self-confidence to even consider doing something as risky as photography or writing or music. On the other hand, some would say that a social science degree (like anthropology) is plenty risky. But whatever…. Half a century later, I’m working, I like my job, I have good benefits, I’m satisfied. And I learned plenty from all those other jobs.