Help Wanted: Tales from the First Job Front

Help Wanted: Tales from the First Job Front

by Sydney Lewis

Help Wanted is a collection of candid first-person accounts by young people from across the nation, who talk about their first forays into the real world of work. The Chicago Tribune called author Sydney Lewis “the legitimate heir to Studs Terkel,” and Terkel himself said, “Sydney Lewis is a natural to do this book. She’s on


Help Wanted is a collection of candid first-person accounts by young people from across the nation, who talk about their first forays into the real world of work. The Chicago Tribune called author Sydney Lewis “the legitimate heir to Studs Terkel,” and Terkel himself said, “Sydney Lewis is a natural to do this book. She’s on the same wavelength as the young people recounting their first jobs. In its honesty and innocence, it’s a strongly moving as well as revealing work.”

Help Wanted discusses everything from difficult coworkers, tough bosses, and criticism to stringent deadlines, dress codes, and harassment and is a testament to how young people are prepared—or not prepared—for their entry into the workforce. It also offers tips for surviving the first months on the job and other advice not found in typical career guides.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Lewis has an obvious rapport with her subjects, resulting in some uninhibited, moving stories and sudden, off-the-cuff wisdom." —Salon
Lewis has an obvious rapport with her subjects, resulting in some uninhibited, moving stories and sudden, off-the-cuff wisdom.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Twenty-five young people tell Lewis the good, the bad and the ugly about their first efforts to find a full-time job in this informative study of the real world of work. A prot g of legendary oral historian Studs Terkel, Lewis ("A Totally Alien Life Form": Teenagers; Hospital: An Oral History of Cook County Hospital) astutely allows 20-somethings to tell their stories in their own words. Marc Spiegler, for example, explains how his first gig at a market-research firm taught him to hate the corporate workplace; after an exasperating two years, a casual conversation led him to journalism school and a successful career as a writer. Max Leonard, on the other hand, deferred college for a year to participate in Boston's City Year program, a kind of urban peace corps. "I have inspiration for years saved up from this experience," he told Lewis. Of course, life isn't always so rosy: Grace Tilsit, working at a Big Six consulting firm, told Lewis how she made a disastrous mistake on a client's account. Some of the people profiled are simply more compelling and eloquent than others; there are also too many platitudes ("You gotta experience, you gotta live, you gotta do") and banal conclusions: internships are invaluable; make as many connections as you can; switch jobs if you're unhappy. However, these are lessons many young people want--or need--to hear, which positions Lewis's book as a potentially popular graduation gift. Most of the interviews date from 1997, and a "Where are they now?" epilogue allows the reader to see how the people Lewis profiled succeeded--or failed--in following through on their dreams. (Jan.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Twenty-five young people discuss their first forays into the real world of work. Each first-person account tells a tale of learning the written and unwritten rules of life on the job: dealing with difficult coworkers, tough bosses, criticism, deadlines, dress codes and harassment. The stories offer tips for surviving the first months of any job including advice not normally found in career guides. The five sections, introduced by the editor, focus on specific themes: getting started, finding a passion, harsh realities, getting a foot in the door, and creating careers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

New Press, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.07(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"No Timetable":
Testing the Waters

Graduating from high school or college is an exciting, occasionally even traumatic event. Your identity changes as you move from being a high-school teenager to a university student or a worker; your connection to home loosens as you attend school elsewhere, move to a place of your own, or simply exercise your right to stay out later. You suddenly find yourself doing different things, thinking different thoughts, fretting about different matters. As recent high-school graduate T. J. Devoe puts it, "I wasn't really scared, but having this vast range of opportunity made me uneasy. I didn't know what was gonna happen." Jenny Petrow, in describing her first year out of college observes, "It's a tough year. It was for all my friends."

    There are different ways to approach this transitory time. Some choose to pause before gathering their energies to pursue their intended goals. In high school, Devoe decided what kind of work he wanted to do, and he understood that higher education would play a role in achieving his goals. But he made the decision to postpone college in order to take a break from school and earn some money. At work, he paid attention to how different people approach their jobs. This helped give him a fuller notion of how he might develop his own career.

    Gina Parks knew from the time she was a small child what she wanted her work to be, and in high school she researched how to prepare for her chosen field. She sees talking to people as one of the best ways to get information or assistance."What I've found is that if you need a job or anything, tell everybody and someone is going to hook you up."

    Troy Graham could have gone straight from college into the family business. But, as much as he emulates and respects his father's work and work style, he's chosen to strike out in his own direction. Through early work experiences he's learned a great deal about relating to customers and co-workers. According to Graham, "How to read people and how to talk to people isn't something you learn by reading a book."

    Like Devoe, Max Leonard decided to postpone college in order to work. He's unsure what his career will be, but to Leonard all jobs are learning experiences, and he particularly appreciates opportunities to work with people who aren't like him. He urges young people to recognize that "each individual has to look at what's important to them, what interests them." Like Parks, he encourages people to "explore fields, investigate ... When you meet people, think about where they are in the world and what experiences they have."

    There is pressure to choose a direction; there is also one's own desire to make it the right direction. Unsure of her career path, Jenny Petrow struggles to find "something that I love, something that's me, my job.... People make me feel like I have to know what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life ... It might be difficult, but it's OK not to know, it's OK to try a bunch of different things."

    For all the young people in this section, sure or unsure of their career directions, their early work experiences provided occasions for them to learn more about their own interests, skills, and perceptions—to learn some things about what it is like to be part of the world of work.


When T. J., eighteen, discovered music, he felt he'd found his calling. "I play drums in a band, and that's my dream, to be in music." He decided to take a semester off and earn money before entering college to pursue music studies. "I don't know anything. I can barely read music. I'm looking to learn different types of techniques so I can better myself as a musician." T. J.'s first job was at a supermarket. From the agony of being bored to the annoyance of conforming to the corporate image, "It shattered my idea of work a little bit." A mental-health facility data-entry job better suited him and increased his compassion for others. A summer house-painting stint was hard work, and he feels work at a flower store where he's currently a part-time employee is "the coolest job." Seeing a successful small business has given him ideas about what he might someday achieve. T. J. was in his first term of college when we spoke.

When I graduated from high school I was overwhelmed. People go through high school and they get to be seniors and they're like, I'm huge now. And then it's over and you've got a whole new life. I wasn't really scared, but having this vast range of opportunity made me uneasy. I didn't know what was gonna happen. But then I took the attitude that whatever happens, what matters is what I make of it.

    When I was a kid, work was the farthest thing from my mind. I was thinking more about what it would be like going to high school. In grade school, I got into drawing and doing art. When I was fifteen, I found music, and that just took me, I fell in love. I used to write rhymes, and I rapped with these guys in a band. We didn't have a drummer, so I'd fill in. I didn't know how to play: it was just stick banging and loud noise, like what mothers hate.

    I messed around with the drums a bunch, and then one day I found out I could separate, keep different beats and times. It's like being ambidextrous: you do two different things with your hands.

    I didn't start loving music until I found out I could be good at it. I looked at music and thought, "I could do something with this." But it's not a perfect world, you don't always get what you want, it's not guaranteed. I needed to think about something a little more practical to fall back on. I looked at my choices and thought, "What do I want to do? Am I serious about music?" I had to ask myself realistic questions: What if I'm not good enough? So I'm majoring in sound recording and acoustics—I can work in recording studios. If I can't be performing, I want to be close to the business. But I worried, what if the recording thing turns out to be completely boring?

    My band recorded something in a little studio last year, and it's buttons and knobs, thousands of them. I'm going to have to learn what every one of them does. But now that I'm in school, I realize it's not as drab as I feared. And my attitude is that I have to learn this to make the music sound good. It's for the music and that's what I love.

    My mom and dad separated when I was real young. My mom's white, my dad's black, but people think I'm Mexican or Greek. I guess I don't talk like people's stereotype of a black man. My dad's been a cook in a hotel for ten years now and seems to enjoy it. My mom works at a place that has something to do with workers' unions, and also at a mental-health facility, doing stuff with client information.

    I was fifteen when I got my first job. I needed money and my mom was always telling me, "Get a job"— typical parent thing. So I was like, I gotta do it, be responsible, and then I can buy things for myself. I got hired at the supermarket down the road. But I hated that job 'cause it was just standing around the whole time, putting food in bags. It was empty labor to me—it wasn't doing anything. I worked from around four until ten on school nights, and on the weekends till one in the morning. Basically, I'd punch in, stand at the register, put food in bags and give them to people. And then I'd go outside and get carts. We'd have to do that in freezing-cold weather and on blistering-hot days. People would give me attitude and expect me to be all happy. "Oh, here you go, here's your food, enjoy it!" And look at this job I'm doing. People wouldn't be happy if they were at this end.

    At the orientation, you spent the whole day sitting in the lounge where employees take their breaks. You watched movies on how to be a good bagger and then you went out and you were bagging ... A good bagger packs the food without crushing fragile things, like fruits and bread. Cereal boxes go on the ends, so you have room in the middle. Just little tricks. That was interesting for, like, a split second. That's pretty much it.

    They had their whole code of smile and do this, don't do that. And the outfit! For orientation you were supposed to wear a white shirt and black jeans. I didn't know, so I went kind of casual. I wore black jeans, but I had a white shirt with little black designs. When I went into the store for training, all the other employees were looking at me like "who's this guy?" One of the customer-service desk people said, "Tell that kid if he wants to keep this job, he's gotta wear the right outfit." I was embarrassed, but I didn't know.

    Plus, I had crazy hair. It was long, but shaved on the side. I'd pull it back in a ponytail for work. Some of the customers looked at me like I was this big freak. It was weird 'cause I was just trying to be myself. I thought I could be myself and still do a good job. But they wanted this corporate company image, so being uniform and conforming was like a big deal to them.

    There were older people there, in their twenties. They were all friends and had been working at the store for five or six years. They had their own little life together outside of the store, they'd socialize. It was obnoxious, 'cause they'd talk about this person or that person. You'd get tired of hearing the gossip, you wanted to hear something else. And I'm thinking, "How could you want to be a cashier for eight or nine hours a day and just stand there and get sore feet?" [He shakes his head in disbelief.] I quit because it was getting in the way of school and I just couldn't stand it.

    Then I didn't work for awhile 'cause I was kind of iffy after that grocery store. After about six months, I was desperate for money. I got a job at the mental-health facility where my mom works—from the summer before my senior year all the way through that year. That job gave me a better outlook. My mom had worked there for fifteen, sixteen years, so everyone knew about me and they were real nice people. The only downside was that everyone knew about me—I felt like I had to live up to this image. People heard stories from my mom, "Oh, he's in art, he's in music," and then I would come in and would be like, "Here I am." It seemed to confuse people. They expected this huge vibrant personality, you know, and I don't talk that much, I kind of keep to myself.

    The job was doing data entry—I learned how to type in school. Most of the time I was alone in a room. Sometimes I like to work by myself because then I don't feel I have to work and provide conversation, I can get down to business. I entered information about clients, their names and where they lived, and sometimes information about why they were in the mental-health facility—like if they had drug problems or were schizophrenic.

    I'd look at people on the street and wonder what kind of problems they might have. Are they mentally healthy? You don't usually think about that. You get an idea that everyone's OK from the people you deal with, and from what you see on TV. You start thinking people who do have problems are just scummy and evil. But there are so many people with problems. I liked that the job gave me a different view. I'm a good listener, and when something's bothering someone I try and help. That job made me want to help people more.

    The summer after high school, I took a house-painting job with someone in my band. I took it for the experience and to do something different. We painted for a national franchise that hires college students. We woke up every morning around six o'clock and went to job sites and worked on houses all day. At first I didn't like it 'cause of the routine. That was probably the most strenuous job I ever had. I'd come home with paint all over me, every day, sore feet, dead tired. But then I got into it and was like, "You gotta wake up every morning, you have to do this, stop complaining and do it."

    My manager was really strict. You weren't allowed to get paint droplets anywhere. When you scraped paint, everything had to be clean, otherwise you'd have to do it over again, and spend extra hours cleaning what you messed up. We worked on a time budget. If you didn't get the house painted in a certain amount of time, you'd have to work on it without getting paid. It made you hustle. You had to maintain a constant speed, you had to pace yourself. [He claps rapidly.]

    I enjoyed being outside all day ... in good weather. Being with my friend, listening to music while we worked. Old people brought us lemonade, pitchers of root beer, brownies. They pretty much kept to themselves, just let us do our work. But we had houses where people were really picky and they would stand outside and watch. Or, like, if we were painting a window, they'd be on the inside looking out. When people are staring at you, expecting you to do a perfect job, that makes you more prone to mess up.

    I never thought house-painting could be so interesting. I got into all the different tools you use. You have a "five-in-one," this little scraper tool that does five different things—cleans paint rollers, scrapes paint, it's a putty knife—and you have big scrapers and rollers. We'd go to the store and look all these paints and the way they mix them, so I got an idea of different paint textures.

    I developed an extreme hatred for oil-based paint. [Smiles.] I had to paint all these iron rails with black oil paint ... on one of the hottest days of the summer. I was a messy painter—not on the job site, but on myself. If I got paint on my hands, I would wipe it wherever. And I got this stuff all over me. My foreman said, "That's oil paint, that's not coming off for a while." I went home for lunch and showered—it didn't come off. On the hottest day of the summer, it's not great to have black on because it absorbs heat. That black paint was stuck on me for a week.

    The foreman was twenty-one, and he was cool. He was on the job site all the time. As long as we kept to the time budget and got our work done, he let us take breaks, even when we weren't supposed to. But the franchise manager, he was a complete jerk. He only came on the job site every once in a while, to monitor our progress. When I first started, he talked to me like I was some sort of idiot. I'm painting, and he's like, "Oh, you want to do it like this and like this. And I'm like, "Well, the way I'm doing it, it still looks good." I don't always do it the textbook way, I form my own ways.

    This job was full-time, five days a week. When I started, I was told we didn't have to work on the weekends. But sometimes we went overbudget on houses, and even when we didn't, the manager made us come in on Saturdays. The first three times I didn't say anything, but then it got to be every Saturday. Sometimes it would be on Sundays too ... NO. I understand that I'm giving this guy my time and it's a job that has to be done. But when it's every weekend, and it's summer, and I just graduated ... I wanted to have some fun, too. It was strenuous work and I needed a break. If you overwork people, they're not going to do as good a job.

    I asked my foreman, "What's going on? I thought we got weekends off, I thought that's how it's supposed to be." And he said, "Yeah, it is." I felt like I was some kind of pawn, like all of us were. The manager would say, "I'm thinking about getting these houses done, I've got jobs lined up." I understood his position: he's got all these jobs lined up and he wants them done so he makes his money. He was selfish, just thinking about how everything's gonna work for him. Sometimes he scheduled budgets that were ridiculous, and those were the ones we would go over on. He wasn't thinking about our needs, or how if you want us to do a house in this little amount of time it's gonna look like crap.

    We had this porch job—the worst job we had. Our foreman went back to school three days into the job. That left just me and my friend. We went over budget by a week. Our manager knew the foreman was leaving, he knew me and my friend were first-year painters. He should have known the job would take longer, he should have allowed more time. But he would say, "See this right here? That should take about two hours. And this over here, the soffit and the ceiling, that should take three hours." I guess he thought, "If there were two of me doing this job, we could do it in this amount of time." And I'm like, "Well, you gotta remember we're still rookies—we're not as good as you are."

    An old lady lived in the basement and she would try and direct us without having any idea what she was talking about. It was sort of the blind leading the blind. She always called us by our names and it got to where I was sick of hearing my own name. "T. J., there's paint chips over there." She's an old lady, I guess you can't be too hard on her, but it was a nightmare, that porch, a big three-floor monster.

    We had to paint everything: the posts, the roofs for each level, the floors, the stairs. We made a lot of sloppy mistakes 'cause we were over budget and we weren't getting paid for any of this. That made it worse. Each morning I dreaded going back because we weren't doing the quality we were supposed to do, the quality we really enjoyed doing. It was just painting. [Mimes slopping paint on.] Not taking any pride at all.

    That bothered me because I liked making peoples' houses look nice, bettering them. We had some houses that were in terrible shape—ratty paint, peeling everywhere. And when we're done, the house has a sort of glow. You can stand back and look. I did that masterpiece—I made that house look great.

    After the summer, I started working at a flower shop. A friend's parents own it—his mother does the designing, his father manages the store. I got hired around Christmas because they needed extra help. I put labels on mailers and the manager showed me how to wrap and do basic things around the store. I didn't know that jobs like this existed. I always think of work as serious, but this is fun. There are days when I'm wrapping packages and doing odds and ends around the store and it doesn't feel like I'm working. It's not at all like the supermarket job. I deliver flowers to people's houses and to hospitals and places all over the area. Flowers have an effect. I deliver to people that are sick or in nursing homes, and when they see flowers coming, everyone gets all happy and cheery. Offices are the craziest, everyone loses their mind—"Oh, is that for me?"

    I never thought you could make so much money running a flower shop. My friend's mother is a great floral designer, and that was her dream. She's always studying flowers. She has meetings with other designers across the globe—she's been to Bangkok, in Thailand, and to Japan. I never thought you could do all these great things just by running a tiny little business. I'm looking at them and how they're living: as their own bosses, doing what they want. That makes me look at my situation and what I want to do. It makes me think about having goals.

    I'd like to be my own boss. Maybe open my own recording studio, depending on how things go with my studies and music. I could rent an apartment and have the studio right in there, soundproof it and all that. All you really need are the resources and the knowledge. It's easier to think about the recording studio than wonder, "Am I gonna make it? Am I gonna be a superstar?" Taking a more realistic view is comforting. It makes my future more definite.

    I want to do something that's gonna make me happy. I don't want to spend the rest of my life thinking, "What could I have done?" I don't want to sit back and think about all the things I could've been. I want to at least try, I want to take the chance. So, now I see what I want to do. I'm just striving for the goal.

    I think you have to know yourself, know what you want to do, and what you want for yourself in the future, and then take the steps necessary to provide that. You have to go into every new situation thinking of how you want it to work for you. Sometimes that knowledge doesn't come to you right away. You gotta experience, you gotta live, you gotta do.


Meet the Author

Studs Terkel's long-time collaborator Sydney Lewis is the author of “ A Totally Alien Life Form”: Teenagers and Hospital: An Oral History of Cook County Hospital (both from The New Press). She lives in Chicago.

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