Boomer Blog: Grab a broom and sweep


My siblings and I have been working “outside the home” for most of our adult lives. Three sisters are or have been in charge of payroll, easily one of the most vital and complicated positions in any company. Another sister is a university culinary specialist, a multi-faceted position defying description. My brother makes deliveries for a warehouse, although he wears several hats in that distribution business. The second sister joined me in retirement this past winter, finally giving up her librarian position, one that also included a motley collection of duties.

None of us, however, entered our adult careers without some or even lots of summer and/or part-time work experience. E-mailed lists from my siblings not only reminded but also astounded me with the number of jobs we held and their many locations: orchards, restaurants, stores, offices, and auction houses, to name just a few. We also took ample advantage of work-study opportunities on our respective college campuses.

No family rule forced us to work, but temporary jobs allowed us to earn some money of our own; and our parents supported our efforts. Two of the girls found work at the county nursing home where my mother was employed as a nurse’s aide. Roberta Shand at the county library knew me from our family visits; at 15 I began my three-year stint there, earning a dollar an hour. Transportation was often difficult with fewer family cars than employed people, but my parents made it happen.

Several years ago a school counselor asked my brother-in-law, a local business owner, to speak to county high school students at a vocational day hosted by Urbana College. When he asked what he should say, organizers urged him to emphasize basic job skills, ones that he considered obvious: be on time, stay all day, carry out assigned duties. Fortunately, the kids in our family were always way ahead of the game because we had already learned those “skills” just by watching our parents.

It all began with babysitting. Our telephone number was a popular one to dial; if I was not available, there were a couple of alternates right there in the same household. For the going rate of 50 cents an hour, we changed diapers, played games, read books, put little ones to bed – sometimes several times – and did our best to minimize toddler mayhem.

Whether by coincidence or design, early jobs helped some of us make vocational decisions. One sister had planned to follow Mother into nursing, until she spent a summer as a Candy Striper. Another sister, however, parlayed summer camp cooking experiences into her current work with dining hall menus and special diets. Yet another sister streamlined the whole process. She used the skills she had learned in Nellie Pickering’s business classes at GHS to work in the office of Stocksdale’s grocery store after school and on Saturdays during her senior year and became a fulltime employee there right after graduation.

All those hours in all those temporary positions offered countless learning opportunities. Figuring out how to work with a boss, co-workers, and the public was an essential lesson with long-lasting benefits. We also experienced that first, heady sense of independence; working as individuals rather than extensions of our parents was an important step as was deciding how to use the income we earned.

I have found that every job teaches skills sure to be useful later in life. My library experiences with the card catalog and The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, research tools now outmoded in our current computer age, directly and immediately benefitted me at college. But who knew that at my least favorite job – working in the college dining hall – I would learn to operate a huge can opener, a skill I put to use years later opening big cans of pizza sauce in the GHS kitchen during a German exchange fundraiser.

I understand that summers for many modern families have become impossible mazes of sports practices, games, camps, and vacations with little time left for jobs; it may be equally difficult for kids to work weekends or after school. I still believe, however, that even a few hours at a job outside a teenager’s home can make a tremendous contribution to that young person’s development. I always urged my students to master good study habits so that they were prepared when their educations started costing megabucks. I feel the same about part-time employment for teenagers: work experience before that first grown-up job provides benefits far more valuable than its meager wages.

When I began that first job at the library, my father imparted the best work advice I ever received: grab a broom and sweep. He was of the opinion that I should always be busy, that I should never stand around, that there was always something I could be doing. I translated his “grab a broom and sweep” wisdom into straightening – and sometimes restraightening – the shelves of books near the circulation desk.

It is my hope that all teenagers will have a chance at some point to experience the independence of summer/part-time work. I hope all teenagers will master essential, basic job skills well before they begin their careers. And I hope all teenagers learn to “grab a broom and sweep” no matter where they are working. They will be better employees – and people – for the effort.