I am a firm believer in the idea that the first employment experience is a truly formative experience. In many ways, your first job can shape the trajectory of your longterm employment expectations. Sometimes your first job is even a pathway to other more substantial opportunities. Technically my first job was as a youth sports referee, but since that was a more sporadic nontraditional job I’m going to skip to my first job at 16.
When I was 16 I wanted exactly one thing: a car. My entire reasoning behind getting a job was not for the experience of being employed in a more traditional nature. I wanted to acquire purchasing power and that meant acquiring a position that had the ability to provide funds. So I walked into Bed, Bath and Beyond in Saginaw, Michigan. No resume. No relevant experience. Just a polo, jeans, K-Swiss and a smile. I requested an application. Returned the application. At that time the company’s policy was that they were always accepting applications and upon return of the application the manager would meet the applicant submitting and ask some baseline questions and then repeat the aforementioned application policy. That is exactly what happened.
I got home and waited. My mom told me to do some follow up and check on the status of my application (good call mom). I called. The store manager invited me to do an interview. At the interview he offered me the position. I was elated. It was the first position I had applied for. I was put through a series of trainings. I had to learn some of the key products in the store. They taught me the difference between 650 thread count sheets and 300 thread count sheets, the difference between a Krups coffee maker and Mr. Coffee, and perhaps most importantly the use of certain kinds of stemware – the longterm significance of this job for my personal home preferences was endless. Nonetheless, I was the most knowledgeable 16 year old on household items in (probably) Saginaw County.
Shortly after my start the store manager that hired me was moved to a different store and a new store manager was brought in. What is important to note about Bed, Bath and Beyond was a few things. First, I was expected to provide excellent service to customers. I was the first 16 year old they had ever hired in that particular store (something I would find out later on) and so the idea that high expectations were placed on my performance was important. They did equip me with the information so entrusting me to follow through with what they trained me on was crucial. The other crucial part of this experience is when I made a mistake they would bring it to my attention and make it a teachable moment.
My first job would be my primary job up until I went to college and the staff would be an important staple in formulating my understanding of what a workplace could be and the types of learning experiences retail spaces, in particular, had to offer.
I remember I had a boss, in the nonprofit sector, that told me my resume read like I was seeking to be a manager at Macy’s. He told me I needed to remove that portion of my employment experience because it wasn’t relevant. Ironically enough, it was because of my formative employment years in retail that I could endure some of what the nonprofit sector had to offer. Working at Bed, Bath and Beyond taught me tons of translatable skills that allowed me to be a better professional in the nonprofit sector. The idea that employment experience is not translatable across the board underlines the deficit in true training and mentorship occurring in the workplace present day.
My managers were mentoring me to be a better professional and they didn’t even realize it. Certainly they made comments eluding to the fact that retail was not going to be a longterm professional move for me (to which end I think they often undervalued the significance of their service to their clients) but they were very intentional with their interventions and empowerment. When you entrust a 17 year old to take bridal customers through registry items and overview key products that says a lot about your faith in their ability – and as the 17 year old on the receiving end of that trust, that was important. That was vital.
I say all of this to say that the professional development that occurred during this first employment experience, during a time where I was still discovering my sense of self and developing my understanding of the realities of the world, was a pivotal experience. What’s ironic is that the nonprofit boss that benefited the most from my training did not actually functionally understand what it meant to authentically empower someone in a way that impacted their longterm outcomes.
My first job helped me see people first and profit second; a lesson that retail taught me and the nonprofit sector has benefited from.