I am a first-generation immigrant who's currently working two jobs, the latest in a long string of jobs dating back almost three decades. However, my current résumé doesn't have any of the jobs I held before my first "professional" one. This is unfortunate since I learned a lot on those jobs.
It's easy to forget what it was like to jump start a brand new career, but I am reminded of that every once in a while when speaking to young people who are just starting out.
When we immigrated in 1985, we stayed with relatives for over a year as we tried to make a life in San Francisco before trying the suburbs of Philadelphia. My dad delivered the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper at dawn for ten years before his daytime job, when he had one. My mom worked retail at the local mall, taking as many shifts as she could. They were both educated professionals who were forced to start over after making the choice to immigrate to the United States.
My siblings and I went to school and worked part-time minimum wage jobs when we could. Once in a while, we would be asked to help, especially when it was the thick Sunday edition with all the shopping inserts, coupons, and comics; the overpowering smell of newsprint and ink would make us gag. My dad did this for ten years until I graduated from college.
My first official job was at the local McDonald's a couple blocks away. I was 15 years old looking to work part-time during the summer and after school, and for $3.35 an hour I did everything except work the cash register. Due to my age I could only work limited hours, but when I did, I cleaned the bathroom, took out the trash, stocked the freezer, cooked burgers & fries, mopped the floors, and cleaned counters, tables, and chairs while wearing a uniform. I would cook myself a quarter-pounder with cheese on my breaks. My parents would know I was home due to the smell of those infamous French fries wafting through the door; I wasn't bringing home fries. I learned to clock in and out as well as to suck it up.
When I found a job at the local video rental store months later, I simply stopped showing up at McDonald's. I didn't know that you resigned back then and it was easier than going up to my manager to quit. Video Magic was a family-owned business, and a large (majority?) percentage of its revenue came from the little curtained room to the side which had a loyal, dedicated clientele. I learned how to provide customer service, handle money, and reconcile the register at the end of the night. I also learned not to judge, at least visibly. I still cleaned the bathroom. They treated me well.
I moved up to working at the local mall once I got my driver's license and my brother went to college. I got a job at the B. Dalton's bookstore where I got a discount to further indulge my growing passion for sci-fi and fantasy novels. I also found lots of Playboy & Penthouse magazines very creatively hidden in bookshelves towards the back when I cleaned up at the end of the night and put things back. I cleaned the toilet in the back. I learned how to tie a tie since I had to wear one; this was the age of the polyester knit tie. I probably spent too much of what little money I had at the video game arcade tucked in the back corner of the mall, where a little bit of skill meant you could make a quarter last for a while.
I moved on up to Babbage's, the precursor to Gamestop, which allowed me to borrow video games (thanks to a shrink wrap machine) in addition to an employee discount. I wore the same ties. I still cleaned the bathroom. I geeked out on video games with other geeks like me, kids who would spend hours at the store looking through the games, reading the boxes, and having odd conversations with others who shared the same interests. My love for video games really flourished during this period. My social standing in high school did not.
The summer before senior year high school I got a job at the bigger, fancier mall a little further away at a clothing retail store called Merry-Go-Round. Minimum wage was $3.80/hr at this point, but they offered commission if your percentage of sales exceeded what you would have received with minimum wage. The interview required that I sell the assistant manager her ring which she took off one of her fingers. I somehow got the job. I learned how to estimate people's clothing sizes just by looking at them. I learned to cater to their vanity by lying to them about what size they actually were. I would earn my commission maybe one week every month or so, and I learned that there was always a couple who did it much more often and there were some who never did. I regretted every clothing purchase during this period.
I graduated high school and went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I first worked in the library basement filing stuff away. I later helped manage the video editing suite in the College of Fine Arts which gave me after-hours access to the equipment. Sophomore year I worked in the admissions office where I filed paperwork and gave campus tours to visiting students and their parents. I learned how to work as part of a team and to speak to groups of strangers. I started teaching basic computer skills workshop classes to freshmen. Back in the early 90's, most students didn't have their own computers so being comfortable with them wasn't a given.
The summer before junior year I worked four jobs at once since I needed to save up more money for school: back to clothing retail during the weekday, then I would dash off to a call center in the evening until 11pm; teaching computer skills to my mom's colleagues as they were computerizing the office one day a week; and painting Warner Brothers characters on the walls and dressing rooms of a local skate shop on the weekends.
The call center taught me how to talk to strangers on the phone as it required us to get familiar with the day's job in order to call people and get responses to our surveys. I would try slightly different accents to get a higher response rate depending on what part of the country I was calling; I would often be the first to hit my daily quota during my shift. I learned how to organize and manage my time well given my schedule. Working four jobs at the same time taught me how productive I could be and to not be afraid of working.
Spring semester junior year I spent in mainland China as a foreign student in Zhejiang University. Part of the program required teaching English conversation classes to local college students who were studying English. I learned some creative teaching techniques and found that I enjoyed making ideas connect in people's heads. After coming back to the states, I spent my last summer as a college student as a design intern in the State Museum of Pennsylvania where I designed signage and built displays. I rented a room for $50 a week from a widowed retiree, and I rode my bike to and from work. I had to make my bed and wipe down the shower every time I finished using it. I was thankful for my minimum wage-paying internship since I couldn't afford one of those "nicer" unpaid ones.
For my last year in college I went back to teaching computer workshop classes. I also built the curriculum for students from the College of Fine Arts – my people. I also did tech support for a months-long study that gave local low-income families computers that connected to the early Internet to see how it might affect them; I had to respond to a pager which I carried with me two nights a week, and people assumed I was selling drugs on the side whenever it would buzz and I would run off. If I did, I would have probably made way more money than I was making, and I would have been way more popular. In between overloading on classes and working multiple part-time jobs, I learned to schedule my time and prioritize in order to get through college.
Ever since my first typography class in freshman or sophomore year, I had been updating my résumé with every single new job I had and every new skill I acquired. I had made the decision to study art & design in college and I wanted to avoid having to regret the decision by going back home to live with my parents upon graduation. That was my practical objective, and I was going to achieve it one way or another.
I was going to job interviews all over the place, sending my resume and portfolio to anyone I could. This was before people used the Internet for this, so it required going through local & national newspapers, job postings at the career center, and following up on contacts and connections. My brother gave me one of his old suits to wear when I interviewed on campus with prospective employers. A couple of them flew me out to interview onsite. My backup plan was to teach English as part of the Japan Exchange & Teaching program, and I was getting ready to do it with another friend when, on the last day of finals, I came home to a blinking light on my answering machine.
It was a message from the HR department at IBM offering me my first professional job as a Graphic Designer. That job is now at the bottom of my current résumé, and I couldn't be more thankful for it.