First Job Teaches Lifelong Skills

by Bettye Thomas-Gilkey

One of the greatest assets that a career professional can possess is personal experiences upon which to draw as it provides an invaluable source of insights that can help students chart their own course and make informed decisions.

In retrospect, I now believe that if I'd known of the availability and benefits of career counseling from the onset, a multitude of barriers could have been avoided. But the likelihood of experiencing, firsthand, the complexities of developing a career life would not have been as rewarding in my career life.

I further believe, that without experiencing, what appeared to be misdirection, I would not or could not provide the quality of guidance and support that my students currently enjoy or experience its intrinsic rewards.

My extensive career path actually began at the age of five when I accompanied my mother to our part time job of cleaning office buildings. My responsibility was to empty the trash cans and clean the ashtrays. Although much to my chagrin, this is where I learned the importance of a sound work ethic and providing quality service.

By the time I was twelve, mama had ascended into the position of managing a local restaurant. This unique opportunity allowed me to experience diversification of talent and potential as I was often provided the opportunity to fill in for the dishwasher who was frequently absent. So at the same time, I developed firsthand experience into the pitfalls of chronic absenteeism and its ultimate costs. This accessibility and enthusiasm earned my first real job.

Initially, it was exciting. I looked forward to Saturday mornings so I could "go to work." As the novelty waned, however, I began looking for a way out. I believed I could do better and I hated washing all those dirty dishes. So whenever I got the trays of dishes caught up, I'd venture into the grill room and help fill the orders. The cooks willingly reinforced my interest by allowing me to assist them during rush hour. My job was making toast or pouring french fries into the deep fryer.

Soon, I became proficient enough to assume larger tasks; eventually earning my first promotion. I was a fourteen year-old grill cook; soon considered one of the best. I assumed multiple tasks effectively and learned quickly to get the orders out in a timely manner so the customer could enjoy their meals hot and now.

During the slow times, I ventured into the rear kitchen area, where the dinner cooks performed miracles in the big pots on massive stoves. They had the awesome task of preparing meals for the steam table. That seemed so important to me and I had a need to feel important.

I didn't understand at the time that the need for career affirmation is critical to overall success. I believed becoming a dinner cook was the epitome of success in that arena. So I worked hard at becoming a dinner cook when the grill was caught up.

First of all, it paid more and I was fascinated with the cooks' ability to feed multitudes from those big pots. No doubt the dinner cooks embraced my curiosity by providing access to smaller tasks which escalated over time. They taught me the ropes and shared coveted trade secrets which made me an exceptional dinner cook by the age of seventeen. Now I could run the entire kitchen area; at every level. I had also met my personal objective of setting, reaching and mastering an objective.

But there were painful and unpleasant consequences of such rapid success. I learned lessons that caught me unaware. Like, when the boss is your mother, it's next to impossible to call in sick or become inaccessible in times of crisis. I soon learned a caveat of Murphy's Law regarding effectiveness and it's negative impact.

My level of skill and effectiveness began working against me. I had reached the pinnacle of success and needed to make new decisions as I began feeling stifled. It was time to move on. Needless to say, my career in the restaurant industry ended as I graduated high school and moved on to college.

Over the course of years, however, I've reflected on my humble career beginnings and applaud my mother for providing that initial career guidance. The values she instilled in me are invaluable; often providing wisdom and insight beyond my years.

I cherish those experiences. They have contributed greatly in equipping me to help others. The array of opportunities afforded me have left few professional arenas I've not traversed.

I share hands-on and personal insights into manual labor/factory work, secretarial/office management, mid-level corporate management, state government, public service and the political arena. My extensive background in volunteerism and community service have refined me for leadership in this and other professions.

So you see, while I appeared to be wandering to and fro working various and sundry jobs, I was actually amassing a wealth of experience that contributes greatly to my effectiveness as a career counselor. This is an asset for my students and to the profession I so proudly serve.


In honor of NCDA's 100th anniversary, Career Convergence is publishing articles of historical significance. This article and bio are reprinted from our debut issue in 2003.

Bettye Thomas-Gilkey is a licensed professional counselor with Lansing Community College in Lansing, MI, where she provides individual counseling in academic, personal and career guidance/preparation. She also teaches development education classes whose focus is on positive interventions for student academic and career success.

Additionally, Ms. Thomas-Gilkey designed and implemented the college's premier student/athlete study hall component which provides academic guidance and supports for special populations. She has completed extensive research on this subject matter.

Ms. Thomas-Gilkey is a freelance writer with the Michigan Bulletin Newspaper and has published numerous articles on professional and career related issues. She is also a Certified Disaster Relief Counselor with the American Red Cross.
Her email address is


Matt Ishler on Tuesday 07/02/2013 at 09:11AM wrote:

Thank you for this reminder that we are impacted by all of our experiences, and for highlighting the value of reflecting on how our experiences have shaped and formed who we are and who we want to become.

Lori Rubinger on Wednesday 07/17/2013 at 10:01AM wrote:

Experiences good or bad are all teachable moments. Learning is cumulative and plays a large part in contributing to the professionals we become. No learning is a waste of time. Thank you for sharing your story.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the opinions of this organization.