Retail Blues: Losing the Formative Experience of Young Workers

Matthew Stokes

Matthew Stokes

Matthew Stokes is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. He has been published in The Bulwark, Alabama Daily News, the University Bookman, and the Gospel Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @yellingstopal.

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50 Responses

  1. Avatar InMD
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    says:

    Good post. The death of the high school job is worrying especially if what they’re being replaced with is extracurriculars for college resumes.Report

    • Avatar superdestroyer in reply to InMD
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      says:

      First, only about 60% of high school graduates move directly to college. A large percentage of those attend community colleges. Another large percentage attend universities with very low admission requirements. Only about 10% of high school students even try to get on the selective university track. College resumes is only for that top 10%. Remember, there are almost as many students at the University of Central Florida than in the entire Ivy League. there are probably entry level chemistry classes at Central Florida that have as many undergraduates as all the undergraduates at Cal Tech.Report

  2. Avatar Damon
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    says:

    Something that’s rare nowadays…..my Dad came to me when I’d gotten my driver’s lisc. and was a junior in high school. “Find a job for the summer or I will find one for you.” I didn’t..he did. I rode behind a bailer on a sled stacking wheat for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. When there was a grass fire, we fought it…regardless of the time of day. I got paid for that too, and the day after off. I made 5 dollars an hour and, as a high school kid that year, had more money that i knew what to do with. Mom took me down to the bank and I got my first bank account.

    Of course, I could get a lisc when I was 16….not some provisional one, a full one. And I worked around heavy equipment, and help my boss fix the equipment when it broke or a tire got flat. He lost a finger in the bailer fixing it when I was off one day. Had a half inch of bone from his finger removed and it was on the kitchen table when I came in the next day.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    I had my share of minimum wage jobs. My first one was for 4 hours a week on Saturdays at age 13. I don’t remember how much my paychecks were but minimum wage in 1985 was $3.35/hr which would make around $27 come payday. *BEFORE* taxes. Which meant that my paycheck after everything was taken out was probably between $15-$20.

    I’m sure I spent the money on video games and candy.

    In… 10th grade? My job was pushing a wide broom up and down toy aisles in a toy store and straightening the Barbie Aisle. My manager turned 25 years old and my co-workers and I made jokes about “a quarter of a century!”

    That job taught me nothing but that there was a schedule. I showed up for work on Tuesday and Thursday the first week and then, the second week I showed up on Tuesday and I got yelled at for no-showing on Monday. WHAT?!?!? I boggled? They took me to the back and showed me the schedule. Huh. I didn’t work the same hours every week. I apologized profusely.

    By the time I was working at the restaurant, I had started to notice two levels of workers. There were the people who would be doing this sort of thing in 10 years. There were people who would not be doing this sort of thing in 10 years. You could tell who was who within seconds of talking to them. They all shared cigarettes.

    If you asked me about the first jobs that I had prior to the restaurant and what I learned from them, I’d probably answer “not a damn thing!”

    But that’s not true. I learned how to show up on time. I learned how to say “yes, okay, I will” in response to seriously dumb requests instead of arguing about whether the Barbie aisle really needed to be straightened.

    I keep remembering an article from Newsweek from decades ago:

    Dennis Drummond of Jefferson Smurfit Corp., a paper-products company, came over the border from Illinois to tell other executives about his experiences in hiring 17 welfare recipients. ““The first thing you learn is they come in late. They’ve often never owned an alarm clock,” he explained, echoing familiar frustrations. “”You’re ready to fire them. They don’t know where the bathroom is. But we didn’t know where it was when we were new either. If you work with them, give them a “buddy’ at the start, they often turn into outstanding employees.”

    What skills did my mom give me? What skills did the jobs help hone?

    Well, stuff like “show up on time” and “show up showered” and “nod and do what you’re told”.

    These are essential skills. Like, if you have these down, you will be employable forever. If you’re very lucky, you’ll get additional skills that will put you ahead of the pack. But even if not, these skills will put you ahead of SO MANY PEOPLE.

    And if kids don’t have bullshit jobs when they’re kids, many of them won’t learn these essential skills early.

    Which will move them away from the good part of the pack.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      and one other very important thing you learned was that, as you said, there were people who would be doing this sort of thing in 10 years and there were people who would not be doing this sort of thing in 10 years.

      and another important thing you learned was that the former group wasn’t dumb, or lazy; just like the latter group wasn’t necessarily smart. It’s just that there are people that top out at Minimum Wage Hourly Work and people who go past that, and all of these people all have actual lives that are no less (and no more) worthy than any other’s.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        Additionally: you learn the importance of doing the things that will get you a better job in 10 years. There’s a nobility to those early jobs, but there’s also burns and cuts, and knowing that 20 hours barely covers your car insurance.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      I had started to notice two levels of workers. There were the people who would be doing this sort of thing in 10 years. There were people who would not be doing this sort of thing in 10 years. You could tell who was who within seconds of talking to them.

      That rings true with my experience, although I also met actually existing people who had been doing that sort of thing for 10 years (or more). Some of them were people who, for a variety of reasons not having to do with their choices, might never advance to another type of job. Some were people who made bad choices (i.e., bad for them, not existentially, metaphysically bad). These were a group of people who I probably never would have interacted with on a level that resembled anything like equality.

      Also–and I swear this is how I remember it–at the time when I started (16, 17), I wasn’t all that certain I wouldn’t be doing that sort of thing for 10 years. A lot of that was naivete on my part, of the sort that a teenager whose parents pay for all the necessities and who is flush with disposable income. But there was also a sense of, “this is what I’m good for and I could probably never get an office job.” (The idea of “the office job” was almost like a promised land, a job free of stress and having to stand all day. Of course, that idea is wrong, but I wasn’t the only one who had it. And in their own way, even very stressful office jobs that demand a lot of skills are easier….again, in their own way.)

      (Also: Ditto to what Density Duck said.)Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to gabriel conroy
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        says:

        The idea of “the office job” was almost like a promised land, a job free of stress and having to stand all day.

        Of course, now the trendy thing to do is get a stand-up desk so that you can stand all day at your office job.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gabriel conroy
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        says:

        Also–and I swear this is how I remember it–at the time when I started (16, 17), I wasn’t all that certain I wouldn’t be doing that sort of thing for 10 years.

        I bet that people who talked to you were able to tell, within seconds, that you wouldn’t be doing this in 10 years.

        Even if you weren’t able to tell at the time.Report

        • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          I’m actually not sure. I worked with/for my sister (she was one of the managers, but not a very highly placed one) and she was one of those people who had been/would do that type of work for quite a long while.

          But you also might be right. It was probably clear to most people I was very studious, which supposedly was the recipe for getting an office job. And definitely once I went to college, they (and I, for the most part) knew.

          ETA: to be clear, overall I think you’re right and it was probably more obvious to them than to me.Report

  4. Avatar Oscar Gordon
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    says:

    I started as a paperboy, although that job is on the way out. Worked as a farm hand for many a year. Still a viable option, depending on child labor laws in your state. Worked as a junior draftsman for my dad for many years as well, doing all the main drawing work and dimension lines, and he would fill in all the lettering and other finish work when I was done.

    Once I could drive, I got a job cleaning a butcher shop. Be a long time before that get’s automated away, although stand alone butchers are a dying bread in a lot of places.Report

  5. Avatar rexknobus
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    says:

    My first (in 1967 – I was 17) was as an orderly in an emergency room. Before ambulance drivers were EMTs. Before radios announced what was coming through the door. Every time it buzzed was an unknown challenge. Did CPR while a senior in high school (sometimes successfully). Great job. Made me, back in those pre-historic times, a religious seat belt wearer, and you didn’t ride in my car without buckling up. Wish every kid could have had a rotation through there as part of high school.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    I honestly don’t get this. When I was 18, I worked as a camp counselor, when I was 19, I worked in maintenance at a local park and did various clean up duties. I do not think any of those experiences particularly helped in developing a work ethic or led to my ability to be a better lawyer.

    There is this very peculiar American (maybe Anglo) tendency to value work for the sake of work. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is or what the purpose of the job is. Work is good because work is good. I’m generally not fond of axioms and tautologies. Some of the reasons teenage employment has gone down s because a lot of adults now need to teenage jobs as full time positions. Many of these are in retail. There was a time when retail was considered more of a skilled position because a retail employer worked for an individual store and was involved in purchase decisions to a certain extent. If you go back, there was a time when there were no set prices and a purchase was a haggle between the retailer and the costumer.

    I don’t think work is completely useless. Work can give meaning and it can even be fun and fulfilling at times. But work for the sake of work and long hours for the sake of long hours to build “character” feels like an inability to escape a pre-industrial mindset when people needed to spend hour after hour to produce enough agriculture for sustenance living. We are beyond those days.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      Saul, you missed half of the essay and all of the point.

      When you say “one of the benefits of mass transit is that it builds a sense of community”, you’re saying the same thing as this essay did.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        We used to have neighborhoods.

        Report

      • Avatar superdestroyer in reply to DensityDuck
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        says:

        There is no reason to call it mass transit. The masses drive to work. It is better to call it public transportation. An interesting story on public transportation is the Purple line in the Maryland suburbs of DC. It is 2 1/2 years behind schedule, way over budget, and the construction contractor walked off the job. The concern now is that the state will not maintain the temporary barriers and warnings while construction has stopped.

        Also, public transportation does not create a sense on community. It creates a situation where no one cares about their neighborhood because others are always coming and going.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to superdestroyer
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          says:

          It’s called mass transit because the individual vehicles each carry large numbers of people. Some mass transit providers are private, like Greyhound, or Japan Railways. New York’s subway system was initially private, as well. A hypothetical government-run taxi system would not be mass transit.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      When I was 18, I worked as a camp counselor, when I was 19, I worked in maintenance at a local park and did various clean up duties. I do not think any of those experiences particularly helped in developing a work ethic or led to my ability to be a better lawyer.

      Introspection is just not your thing, is it?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        I do not think any of those experiences particularly helped in developing a work ethic or led to my ability to be a better lawyer.

        I’d wonder if those experiences helped him become a better director, or actor, or better at seeing the big picture with plays.Report

        • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          Forget it, it’s Degrawville.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          Or dealing with people, or attention to detail, or just understanding that just because work isn’t glamourous or mentally stimulating doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to get done… etc.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon
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            says:

            I had the benefit of being a waiter (something not everybody has!) and so my bullshit college job prepared me for pretty much everything. Application support, Oracle support, Unix support, system administration, account management…

            Waiting tables makes you better at *ALL* of that.

            I can easily imagine someone saying that they’ve got nothing to do with each other, though. SOMEONE IN SYSTEM SECURITY, PROBABLY.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        It is more of a policy view on what I would like society to look like. I did not say work is bad. I admitted it can be good and provide meaning. I do think there is an American tendency to like work for the sake of work and long hours for the sake of long hours which is counterproductive and unnecessary. And I say this as someone who is skeptical of the Bullshit Jobs theory which was popular a while back.

        I think we can have a healthy and productive economy where work is kept between 30-40 hours a week for most, if not all, professions. This will give people more free time, less stress, and more happiness. Instead we have a system where Americans are the worker bee’s of the Western World and it is considered scandalous to not do some work on the weekend. Again, sometimes this is an absolute necessity. I’ve done it when I had a major brief or filing due on a Monday. I’ve worked through three day weekends when my major brief or filing was due on the Tuesday after a three-day weekend. But I don’t think it builds character to do so. Nor do I consider it good to do this on a regular basis and the defenders of long nights and weekends in the office seem to think it should be done by all because they did it and now others must suffer the same, they are workaholics without personal lives or much in the realm of interest out of work, etc.

        I’m not a conservative and never pretended to be one. I don’t valorize work for the sake of work or hours in the office for the sake of hours. If someone does a good job in two hours, they did a good job in two hours. Staying long in the office to show dedication is just a performance, it is not a show of skill or output.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Saul Degraw
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          says:

          Still missing the point.

          My after school job cleaning a butcher shop, was 2-4 hours a night, depending on what was done during the day. The value wasn’t in the hours or pay, per se (I got paid, better than minimum wage), it was the soft skills that you might learn in college, or might not. I worked that job alone. When I showed up, the owner was closing shop and counting out the till. I had to clean that facility to the exacting standards of the state Ag Dept. They inspected once a week, and that inspection report was a constant reminder of how I was doing. I had no manager looking over my shoulder to make sure I was sanitizing the meat grinder properly every night.

          If you work in the service industry, you learn how to deal with people, with all their warts.

          Are those youth jobs necessary? No, you can pick up those skills later in life. But by not having those opportunities when you are younger, you delay the development of those skills and perhaps miss out on opportunities.

          Of course, working when young might cause you to miss out on other opportunities. When I was an undergrad, I worked all year in IT, which meant I had to miss out on internships and co-ops. Of course, I was running IT departments at the time, so…

          But that gets to the real heart of the matter. You and Lee had (IIRC) parents who were educated, or were willing to make sure you both had access to education opportunities. Youth work might very well have been wasted on you guys.

          I was not so lucky. I grew up poor, and while my parents understood the value of higher education, they had no way to pay for my schooling. For me, those work opportunities in High School were not just nice, they were critical. I had nothing else to market myself with while I figured out how I was going to pay for school.

          So – It’s not all about you. Check your privilege and stop ranting like it is.Report

        • Avatar greginak in reply to Saul Degraw
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          says:

          You’re missing the point Saul. I worked as a teen at fast food jobs because my dad managed a Nathan’s. It was good for me. It developed skills and helped my work ethic. I’m not in any way a workaholic but working in HS helped me when i went to college. Of course i worked in college also. It’s not about being a loving work but more an entry into the adult world and the skills we need. HS work is necessary for some, it was for me even though i’m now a graduate degree “coastal” liberal. It’s like a paid internship for the working class world.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Saul Degraw
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      says:

      There’s an interesting question here, which is the extent to which work ethic is a learned skill or an inherent character trait. Maturation is an important confounder here; we notice that adolescents sometimes develop an improved work ethic after working a part-time job for a while, but during that same period they’re also growing older, and their brains are maturing.

      I have no strong prior beliefs on this topic. Twin studies suggest that conscientiousness is largely genetic, but work ethic might be different from raw conscientiousness.

      Personally, I also don’t feel like I learned much from the part-time jobs I had in college. The importance of showing up on time and doing what I was told seemed pretty obvious to me from day one. But I’m weird. Maybe the average person does actually need to learn this stuff.

      It is worth noting that other than working for my father for a month or two one summer, I never really had any jobs until college. Maybe that’s a data point in support of the maturation hypothesis.

      We need a controlled experiment.Report

      • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Brandon Berg
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        says:

        It wasn’t the showing up on time and following instruction that was important. You learn that in school.

        It was learning how your small contribution fits into the whole (or not), learning what makes a good or bad manager, what makes a good or bad workplace, etc. Things you can’t learn in a classroom but which are crucial to professional survival.Report

  7. Avatar Aaron David
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    says:

    From dishwasher to stockboy, Pizzadude to bookseller. I went through the gamut.

    The bookseller one though. Man, it didn’t pay for spit, but that was my favorite job of all time.Report

  8. Avatar Michael Cain
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    says:

    Janitor and stockboy in high school, but after that never did part-time work that wasn’t technical in some sense: keeping equipment working at a micro-climatology ag field lab; math tutor; intern at the state legislature doing mostly software and statistics; teaching assistant; research assistant; and under-the-table consulting in graduate school.

    All of those were prep for being part of a culture: research and development. Maybe culture is the wrong word, and “tribal membership” would be better. I remember being asked once, “Who are your people?” Whoever was asking was looking, I think, for something like “the Swedes” or “the Methodists”. I was doing something finicky and not thinking about the context in which the question was asked, and what came out of my mouth was “the applied mathematicians.”Report

  9. Avatar gabriel conroy
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    says:

    I’ll join the chorus of people talking about their past jobs. I’ve worked in retail only a little big (if grocery stores or Target count as retail), but I’ve worked a lot in fast food and a lot in other customer service facing jobs (bank teller, bank telephone customer service rep). I learned a lot of lessons and I’d be a very different person, probably a worse person, if I hadn’t had those jobs and if I had jumped from high school to college to grad school to the job I have now. (Truth be told: I might not have had most of those opportunities had I not learned what I did in those jobs.)

    That said, I’d want to guard against saying that just because I’m a better person for those experiences, it therefore follows that other people who haven’t had those experiences are worse people. I just don’t know. (To be clear, I don’t think the OP is making that claim, but I know I sometimes lapse into making that claim, or sounding like I make that claim.)

    For this:

    Work may be available in an Amazon procurement center, or stocking shelves at a big box store, but I wonder how much those jobs require of their employees. They provide a paycheck, to be sure, but are they formative? Do they demand something of employees, and could those demands mean improvement in their own lives?

    My guess is the answer is yes, but in a way that’s different from retail.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to gabriel conroy
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      says:

      I should add that while I learned positive lessons in those jobs, I also learned some negative lessons, or lessons that were a mix of negative and positive. I learned basic customer service skills, and a bit of much-needed humility*, but I also learned how to be obsequious and to allow others to treat me like dirt, at least some of the time. (To be fair, I had learned that lesson long before I was 16, but in some ways, the jobs reinforced that lesson.)

      *Just a bit. I evidently need more.Report

  10. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    Comment in moderation.Report

  11. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    I didn’t really have a job until I got my first job as a lawyer and this did not hurt. There was simply no problem for me just jumping into full time employment as a lawyer. Other people might find having a teenage job a valuable experience. My parents were kind of skeptical about the efficacy of the teenage job in teaching a work ethic, they thought just studying for school would be similar. The one work experience that they had that they wanted me to have is working in a factory because they saw that as a real labor as opposed to being a retail clerk at Sam Goody.

    The thing that gets to me about people moaning about the loss of the teenage job is that it comes from the same people championing the economic causes that led to the decline of the teenage job like the Internet economy leading to a decline in retail stores, particular those selling low or medium priced goods, flexihours and action management, and that it’s harder to get into college. The Golden Age of the Teenage Job (TM) occurred during a time when getting into even an elite college didn’t require Herculean effort, where you needed places full staffed even during slack hours because there was no program to determine how many people should work a particular shift, and no online retail. A lot of teens worked in businesses catering to other teens.

    None of these things exist anymore. Since we have flexihours, the particular time requirements that teens have make them unappealing as employees. Part time teen employment does not work with zero hour contracts. Teens can’t be summoned at will via text or phone call. Since it is much harder to get into college, teens have less time to either work part time or hang out at the businesses that catered to and employed teens if they are college bound. The Internet killed a lot of the low price or medium priced stores that employed and catered to teens. Music and video games are downloaded directly rather than sold. A lot of clothing is ordered online. So teens spend what free time they have very differently than teens during the time period between 1950 an 1998, roughly the Golden Age of the Teenage Job.Report

    • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      I didn’t really have a job until I got my first job as a lawyer and this did not hurt.

      That’s where most of us, myself included, might flounder on this issue. I don’t really know what it would have been like had I not worked from 16 onward. You, I submit, probably don’t really know what it would have been like if you had.

      where you needed places full staffed even during slack hours because there was no program to determine how many people should work a particular shift

      I’m not sure that’s right. Maybe there weren’t the same algorithms* or systems for determining shifts, but managers and the corporations they worked for had ways of creating shifts around presumed slack and non-slack times.

      *I don’t really know what an algorithm is. It’s just a handy word I use for “some sort of formula that determines things.”Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to gabriel conroy
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        says:

        Computers are much, much better for determining slack hours when you need less staff than any assistant manager or manager could be. They are better at this by several orders of magnitude. I think Lee’s broader point is correct though. There were aspects of society that disappeared that made teenagers having jobs easier. One is that teenagers worked a lot of retail jobs and the internet destroyed a lot of retail jobs.Report

        • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Saul Degraw
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          says:

          Quite possibly you and Lee are correct. I’m not an information systems expert.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Saul Degraw
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          says:

          Several orders of magnitude better seems implausible. Computers can’t perfectly predict slack time, because it’s not perfectly predictable. Let’s say that a computer algorithm reduces staffing errors to 1%. That is, the sum of excess worker-hours and worker-hour shortages is equal to 1% of total worker-hours. That seems fairly optimistic to me, but to be three orders of magnitude worse, a human manager would have to schedule ten times as many worker-hours as are actually needed.

          Here are some stats from a site promoting a workforce management system, and it’s saying that the improvements, while significant, are percentage improvements, not order-of-magnitude or even factor improvements.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gabriel conroy
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        says:

        You know the domino meme? That’s much of my life. It seems silly to think that I am now a systems administrator in 2020 because I was a bellhop in the 80’s…

        But I am now a systems administrator in 2020 because I was a bellhop in the 80’s. Well, there are other things that happened too… but I wouldn’t be where I am now without where I was then, and I can’t help but look back at my life and think that missing out on those opportunities and challenges would have me now being someplace not as good rather than thinking they held me back.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          Hence my comment on introspection.

          I look back at my work and school history and I see the arc that led me here. I can also see other potential arcs that would have led me somewhere else, many of them not as successful as where I am right now (the beauty of FB sometimes is how it provides a window into what my life could have been, had I not jumped at certain opportunities, just by looking at the people I was close to once upon a time, who didn’t jump). I can see how the skills I learned/experience I had/contacts made during X created opportunity A.

          I can see those arcs, and I can see missed opportunities, and sometimes I even regret them (like never getting an internship in college). And sometimes, the thing of value I took was, “Oh Hell NO! I am never doing that again!”.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to gabriel conroy
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        says:

        *I don’t really know what an algorithm is. It’s just a handy word I use for “some sort of formula that determines things.”

        I think “automatable procedure for solving a problem” is a good definition. “Formula” doesn’t quite capture it. Long division is a good example of an algorithm that everyone knows. It’s not really a formula, but a precisely defined sequence of operations that can be performed with no creative thought or judgment calls.Report

    • Avatar superdestroyer in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      First, college is not harder to get into. Getting admitted to a highly selective university is very hard but most universities are not very selective.
      Second, many teenagers in 1970 had a job to pay for their car. Having a car was seen as a form of independence. These days parents are not so excited about their teens having cars.
      Low end retails jobs are plentiful in big box stores, outlet malls, and in many other areas. Working for a Vet is almost a requirement to get into vet school.
      Third, one of the things that has changed in graduation requirements. Schools used to have coop programs for students who were not on the college track. Those students could work instead of go to school in the afternoon. The increase in graduation requirements kill that program. Things like HERO, and DE coop programs are anachronistic and are something that teens would not even know that they ever existed.Report

  12. Avatar Slade the Leveller
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    says:

    My teenage working life was pretty picaresque. Amusement park ride operator, busboy/kitchen help at an all you can eat place, jack of all trades at Mickey D’s, and data entry. What did I learn from each? How to show up on time, do a good job, learn to work with people I didn’t much care for, and how to swear in Spanish. Plus, I have great memories of all of them.

    They might night have had much direct bearing on the path my working life took, but no experience is wasted if you put something into it. I’m glad I did all of them.Report

  13. Avatar Kristin Devine
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    says:

    What a lovely piece! I really enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing it with us!Report

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