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Lessons Learned on First Job Can Last a Lifetime

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page K01

My baby brother got his first job last week, as a welder in Ohio. Listening to the daily rundowns of Josh's worries in his first days ("Am I dressed right?" "Will my co-workers like me?" "What if I oversleep?") made me a bit nostalgic for my first job. I was simultaneously terrified, and looking back, a bit arrogant -- and all I had was a summer gig at Burger King.

My kid brother -- okay, he's 20 now . . . I am slowly accepting this -- isn't the only young worker setting out to experience the joy of paid labor for the first time this summer. He will soon be joined by tens of thousands of teenage toilers and recent college grads.


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Some will head into an air-conditioned downtown office somewhere. Others will spend their days (or evenings) at restaurants or out in the hot sun, as lifeguards or landscapers. Most of them won't make much money. Still, that first job makes an impact, shaping ideas about the workplace that stick for life.

I asked readers to share their stories about what they learned on their first jobs.

Helen M. Haag, 47, of Riverdale said she learned to make sure she was contributing to the bottom line. "Always work on billable projects," the computer programmer said. "Even that is not a foolproof method to not being laid off, but it is the most you can do for yourself. I worked at a small company, and when it came time for downsizing, the people on non-billable projects were the first to go."

Most readers, though, focused on the lessons they learned about workplace politics.

Sophie M. Korczyk, 56, of Alexandria said she learned that attitude is everything, especially at service jobs. "My first job was the summer after freshman year of college, at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts." She quickly left for a better-paying office job, said Korczyk, who is now an economist, "but I did learn that being nice to people can offset the inability to make decent scrambled eggs."

Kathy Megyeri, 63, a Washington education consultant, sent me a list of 10 important things she learned at her first job. My favorite: Remember to show gratitude to people who help you. "Go out of your way to remember and recognize the 'little people' that make your job so much easier -- the custodian who cleans your office, the secretary who performs the drudge work day after day, the UPS deliveryman who will find a way to safely stash your packages when you are out of the office, and the air-conditioning repairman who will make sure your office is cooler than others in August," she wrote in an e-mail.

Chelsey Hibbard, 28, a management analyst who lives in Alexandria, credits the company owner at her first "real" job out of college, as a staffing director for a pool company in Northern Virginia, with helping her learn to manage people well. She was stressing out about the job after only a few months. "At about the point I was ready to tearfully quit . . . one of the owners of the company pulled me aside and instead of yelling at me about how I messed up, he instead calmly told me his tricks," she wrote in an e-mail.

"He showed me that often the best way to counsel an employee who is having problems is to show them HOW to deal with what's hindering them, as opposed to just yelling. I really appreciated him taking the time to help me, and to this day, I remember that when I am counseling employees or even just training junior employees," she wrote.

Sarah Doelp, a marine insurance underwriter who lives in Alexandria, said she also learned a thing or two about getting along in the workplace. "You can pick your friends, and can even choose those in your family who you want to associate with, but you don't pick your co-workers, supervisor or management," said Doelp, 44. "You must learn to either accept and deal with the difficulties that some of them will inevitably pose, or move on."

Dennis Chong, 30, a lawyer in the District, wasn't so pessimistic, but he did advise investigating the office culture before joining a firm. "If the job is in a small office, be absolutely sure that you like and respect your office mates. . . . Life's too short to work in a small office for someone who's miserable to work with or for," Chong said.

Now, there's something to pass along to my brother.

E-mail Mary Ellen Slayter at slayterme@washpost.com. Join her for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. June 20 at www.washingtonpost.com.


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