Career

Skills I Gained From My First Few (Not So Great) Jobs

Your first jobs might not be glamorous, thrilling or even fun. But, for every shelf you stock, floor you clean or soft drink you pour, keep in mind that while you’re building your bank account, you are also building your resume.

They say millennials will have more jobs in their lifetimes than any other generation before them. While this sweeping statement can sound grand, for a lot of young people first jobs come in the way of casual work on a checkout, fast-food production line, babysitting or stocking shelves. It’s rare that a first job will be the job of your dreams, but within the mundane confines of crappy first jobs are hidden gems of skills and tools that might be the deciding factors in your success as you continue with your career.

It’s all about transferrable skills, like the ones below.

Attention to detail

Whether you’re stocking shelves, sorting pamphlets or stuffing envelopes, your first job might be the first time that missing details have had real-life consequences.

I worked at a patchwork and quilting shop and a two-dollar store while I was at high school. Even though the first shop I worked at sold beautiful and luxurious products and the other focused on bargain value, attention to detail was key at both. If fabric was packaged messily or placed with clashing colours, it wouldn’t sell. If shelves at the discount store were stocked haphazardly and it was hard to find items, patrons would complain. Even worse than complaints were safety hazards created by overstocked shelves.

I’m not a very visual person and can get sloppy with presentation, but a few quick words from my managers taught me about the importance of paying attention to details. As I moved into jobs in which I was responsible for transactions in the thousands of dollars and the security of client details, I was glad I’d practiced this skill early on.

Work in a diverse team

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One of the best parts of my early part-time jobs was working with diverse teams. Unlike the likeminded colleagues I gained when I moved into jobs in my chosen industry, the teams I worked in at part-time jobs were hired out of convenience and sometimes employees had very little in common apart from a desire to earn a little extra dough.

I attended an all girls’ high school, so while I was a teenager my pool of acquaintances didn’t stretch much beyond other private school girls. Working allowed me to meet men and women my age and older from varied backgrounds. At my first jobs, I learnt the art of conducting conversation with someone whose life didn’t mirror my own. I learnt about golf from one teammate and rockabilly music from another who was counting next to me during a stock take.

As I moved through university and out into the real world, I was glad to feel confident about my ability to have a nice conversation with anyone who crossed my path.

Time management and juggling priorities

Most likely, you’ll have multiple priorities while you work your crappy first job or jobs. While I was at university, I traded in my sales assistant shirt for work as a high school tutor. For most of my university course, I worked three to four hours a day, five days a week, with most of the hours falling at night or early Saturday mornings. My course had a high level of practical contact time and along with my work schedule, my timetable was full.

I could have used the extra time I spent working to study or party, but my desire to travel won out and I learnt how to manage my time so I could do well at uni and at work. Whether you’re going to school or university, building up your own business or freelance practice, raising a family or attending to one of the many other reasons that could spur you to take on a menial job, you quickly understand that you’ll need to prioritise in order to stay afloat.

Learning how to manage different priorities will give you the edge in future workplaces and allow you more freedom to commit to things by knowing what your limits are.

Manage others

With a high staff turnover rate, good staff can often find themselves moving quickly up the ranks at their first few jobs. Getting a supervisor or manager promotion will teach you how to lead others and demonstrates that you’re able to handle responsibility.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, ('Top Banana', Season 1), Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, 2003-, TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved, Courtesy: Everett Collection

Not like this.

After a couple of years working as a tutor, I was made manager of a tuition centre in the same chain when the owner went on maternity leave. The skills I learnt included managing the client database and timetable, handling all levels of customer service, writing up weekly reports and running staff meetings. These skills ended up landing me my very first job in the industry I’d studied in.

Specific but transferrable skills

The specific skills you’ll learn at your first job will be unique to your experience.

Skills I learnt at my first jobs that continue to prove useful include: handling money and using an EFTPOS machine, answering the phone (it sounds basic, but it takes practice!), merchandising, proof reading, handling difficult customers and clients, stuffing envelopes quickly, reading spreadsheets and managing client databases. It’s amazing how often these skills have popped up in jobs further down the track.

Forming boundaries and understanding crappy vs unacceptable

A first job can also teach you how to sniff out situations that are unacceptable. When I moved away from home after uni in the middle of the recession, I was prepared to take any job I could find. Yes, my job handing out pamphlets about the transport system at bus and train stations was mind-numbingly boring, and yes, I whinged about it, but I worked fair hours and got paid a fair wage.

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In the next job I took, I signed up for what looked like a straightforward nannying job, then learnt that the children had severe behavioral problems and the dad kept inviting me to drink wine with him instead of looking after his kids. I was in over my head and a little creeped out and I quit within weeks. When I learned later that they’d had four nannies in six months, I wasn’t at all surprised.

Jobs like this one taught me how to identify when I wasn’t in the right position for me, and when the situation warranted a swift exit.

Sadly, it can be easy for people to take advantage of workers who are young, vulnerable or desperate for a job. Remember that if you are being mistreated, bullied or being required to work illegal hours or for illegal pay rates, there are organisations you can report this to. The Australian Human Rights Commission links to resources for reporting bullying incidents, and the Fair Work Ombudsman can provide information about your entitlements.


Lauren Sherritt is a playwright and freelance writer based in Brisbane. Lauren’s work has been featured online at Junkee, The Financial Diet, Birdee, LifeMusicMedia, lip magazine and Australian Stage.

Lead image: The Devil Wears Prada/Fox 2000 Pictures