Summer Jobs versus Sports

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100-degree summer days only get worse when you are crawling around in the attic of a 3-story home for 10 hours a day! Unbearable heat.

Itchy insulation.

Hands cut up so bad they look like you put them in a blender.

But at only 13 years of age, it was the only job I could get that paid better than the $2.50 an hour my mom would dish out to paint our house, chop wood, and mow our lawn.

The four summers I worked as an air conditioning man were an invaluable life experience.  Also, I was fortunate enough to have other summer jobs. I stocked shelves at Blockbuster Video. I worked as a YMCA lifeguard and swim instructor. I worked my way up at a restaurant, going from dishwasher to cook to waiter and finally, to bartender. I served as a hotel receptionist and cleaned rooms.  I answered phones working as a secretary.  I even created and did the voice overs for a business’s instructional videos – still to this day I am not sure what we were selling!

All my summer jobs provided an opportunity for me to develop life skills that sports and my schooling could never provide.

USA Today and The Atlantic reported last year that in the last 40 years, summer employment has dropped from 60% to 35% – a staggering 25% drop. The reasons were not due to an increase in laziness, but an increase in summer schooling and summer sports participation.

While a variety of reasons exist for parents not to force their teenagers to get summer jobs, and for teenagers not to be motivated job seekers, the benefits are far too great for young people to miss out on summer employment. Whether they are working 10 hours or 40 hours a week flipping burgers, lifeguarding the community pool, mowing lawns, bagging groceries, or washing dishes, they are missing out on some hard life lessons and growth opportunities that employment offers.

11 Lessons I Learned from a Summer Job

1. Learn to take pride in your work. I wasn’t always that tough or hard of a worker. Yes, I would work hard at basketball practice. But I loved basketball. I hated my job! When I started out, my focus was on how I could maximize water and lunch breaks and minimize my effort and quality of work without getting called out by my boss.

Installing an air-conditioning system was not only uninteresting to me, but at 13 years of age, I never thought about how my service impacted other people. Doing an excellent job was not important. However, by the end of the last summer I worked as an air conditioning man, even though I still didn’t like my job, I took immense pride in not only working hard, but doing quality work that represented my boss’ company well and provided people with quality service.

2. Learn to take unfiltered criticism. My boss, Will, was a great guy and would later go on to become my confirmation sponsor at our church. But he never went easy on me. When I would do a crappy job, he wouldn’t mince words. He would let me know straight up when my job was not up to the company’s standards. And if I didn’t like the way he said it to me, tough… I would just have to find another job. Teachers and coaches are expected to filter and create a “positive” learning environment. A great deal of bosses in the real world aren’t that concerned with your feelings.

3. Learn the value of money. I started at $6.25 an hour for a very challenging and grueling job. During my last summer of working in 115-degree attics, I moved up to $10 an hour.  I learned to pack my lunch because buying lunch equated to one hour of working in a grueling hot attic. I learned I didn’t want to work a minimum-wage job for the rest of my life, and I learned to appreciate the cost of basketball camps, new shoes, and gas for my parents’ car once I started to pay for these things.

4. Learn what you might want to do – or DON’T want to do – when you grow up! I learned quickly that I didn’t want to work on a construction site all my life. Stocking shelves, cleaning nasty hotel rooms, pouring pints, and answering phones was not enjoyable to me. However, I started to gain a sense of what I did enjoy doing and that helped guide me in selecting what I would study in college.

5. Learn to appreciate people in different jobs and from different backgrounds. I may not have enjoyed all those jobs, but I learned to appreciate the people building our homes. I learned to appreciate people in the service industry and the challenging jobs they have to do every day on wages that can barely support a high school teenager living in his parents’ home, eating his parents’ food. I grew a greater appreciation for people who left their country, home, and family behind for a better job and life, especially when they were still grateful for the opportunity to clean nasty hotel rooms for crappy pay.

6. Learn that you have a choice and so do your employers. Everyone is entitled to an education in America. Sports have become an entitlement to many young people and parents as well. My plethora of jobs taught me that we do have a choice, but our options will be limited without further education, experience, or skills. So, I’d better go out and start developing those, so I would have better options! I would never be entitled to a respectable job or a promotion until I had earned it.

7. Learn from other peoples’ life mistakes. Some of my coworkers were people my age, but a larger portion of people were much older than me. Sometimes, they enjoyed what they did, but often, they did not like the job and struggled to get by on the pay. And often, they would share that at some point in their life, they made some poor decisions! Dropped out of school. Got involved in drugs. Got multiple DUIs. Fathered a child in high school. Got involved in crime. I picked up early on in high school that I might make some decisions that would have a lasting negative effect on my future.

8. Learn to manage your time. Show up late to practice and your coach probably makes you run. Show up late to school and you get detention. But if you show up late to work too many times, you get fired.

9. Learn to be kind to difficult people. In the service industry you have to smile and be respectful to unhappy customers.  I will never forget the day a customer chewed me out because we were all out of the movie Cars and he felt it was my fault that Blockbuster Video had run out of them, even though he had waited until 8pm on a Friday night to rent it! Being kind and respectful towards that idiot was not easy, but it was a lesson in restraint, as well as a good mental note of the person I did not want to become in 20 years!

10. Learn to build a resume. A student recently asked me for a recommendation and help writing her resume. She was graduating from high school that summer, but when it came time to put down previous employers or work experience, she had NONE! She was embarrassed and concerned that nobody would hire her without any experience. I told her it is far better for her to realize that now than to realize it when she leaves college!

11. Learn to communicate effectively. A few years ago, the parent of one of my players lectured me that it was unreasonable of me to expect a 16-year-old boy to communicate about missing practices or games. If that same young man had a job flipping burgers, you can be sure they would expect him to communicate when he was unavailable to work. If he failed to let his boss know until 4 hours before work on a Friday that he had a family birthday party to attend, I don’t think his boss would have had much pity.

Take Action

School and sports can easily be distorted and twisted, because they are judged very differently than a real job.

I have been a coach for over 11 years and I believe in the platform of sports to teach life lessons.

While applicable to life… sports aren’t real life.

Schools are not teaching the lessons or developing the skills needed to thrive in the real world.

Summer jobs are less about what you are doing or the money you are making and more about who you are becoming through the process.

Nobody wants to raise, educate or employ 22-year-old children! So, whether you are an educator, coach, parent, or teenager, we all play a role in making sure young people don’t miss out on these critical opportunities.

Parents: Compel your kid to get a job so they can help pay for some of the extra summer classes, sports camps, travel teams, special nutritional supplements, or shoes they need for the upcoming year.

Athletes: Seek employment and don’t be afraid of the hard and challenging jobs, because those are the ones that provide the greatest opportunities for growth.

Coaches: Be flexible, supportive, and even encourage young people to seek employment during the summer or even over the season.

Let me know if you are interested in my mentorship program, which has some spots opening in August. If you have any doubts about the value of the program, I have many current and former mentees who are willing to share their experience with you.

My consulting services are customized programs tailored to fit your athletic department, club, or team’s unique context. I work with administrators, coaches, athletes, and parents to create a culture that develops mental toughness, leadership, and character.

—J.P. Nerbun