First Jobs Kindle Careers: The Transferable Nature of Skills Developed From First Jobs

By Craig Harrison

Do you remember your first job? Babysitting? Working in a restaurant? Helping out with a family business? Even if the memory is vague or one you'd prefer not to relive, do not look disdainfully upon that early experience. Despite a potentially menial nature and likely low pay, there is great value to be derived from this formative experience. Successful professionals from all walks of life learn valuable lessons, acquire lifelong skills, and benefit from ethical lessons gleaned during these initial jobs. You and your clients likely learned more than you think at that first job!


Transferable Skills: From the Cafeteria to Computers

In the work world, the most important skills are often transferable. Therefore working at a McDonalds doesn't consign you to a career in the food industry. Young Leslie Haynes' first paying job? As a cashier in a cafeteria-style restaurant. Each morning patrons ordered and paid Leslie before receiving their food. Daily, upon opening, one customer from a local corporate office arrived with a detailed order including a dozen beverages for her co-workers: "ice tea/no lemon;" "ice tea with lots of ice;" "Coke with a little 7-Up." "Coke with no ice." etc. Other employees hid when they saw this customer coming because they would usually get the order wrong! To serve this customer better, Leslie began personally taking the woman's order. And she always got it right.

One day, the woman handed Leslie a business card and explained that her manager wanted Leslie to interview with their company. He reasoned, "anyone who can be that efficient should work for us." And that's how Leslie got her first corporate job, using computers, handling paralegal work for Mead Data Central, Lexus/Nexus in Dayton, Ohio. She's since been a computer operator for a major database company, before becoming a registered certified dietitian. Today's Leslie is working with one of the nation's lead research hospitals in Bethesda, Maryland. Her cafeteria ability to organize, prioritize and handle complicated tasks, from both customers and patients, has helped her win many jobs and promotions throughout her career.


Nuts and Bolts Training

For Charles Schwab, growing up in Yolo County, California afforded him the opportunity to become entrepreneurial at an early age. His first paying job? Picking up walnuts, sacking and then selling them for $5 per 100-pound bag. Schwab learned early that "the only way you could make a go of any enterprise was first, to find a profitable business concept; then begin to take practical steps to put the concept into action; and finally putting in the extra hours to turn a profit." Some friends who picked with him thought he was nuts when times got hard and sales slowed. Yet Charles kept picking. Some bolted; Schwab persevered. "I quickly learned that if I kept at it and plowed right through the rejections I'd eventually get somebody to buy my wares."

Today San Francisco-based Charles Schwab & Co. brokerage services employ 12,400 and manage approximately $1.3 trillion. Whether picking nuts or stocks, hard work and perseverance pays off!

Little Things Make the Difference: The Difference is No Little Thing

For George Zimmer, President of The Men's Wearhouse, little things make the difference. Mr. Zimmer's first paying job: working for a newspaper, collecting fees from the delivery boys and helping them collect from their customers. He handled an area that had approximately 25 delivery boys. According to Zimmer, "the most important lesson I learned was that the devil is in the details."

Years later The Men's Wearhouse is known for their attention to detail. At over 1,269 stores throughout North America, customers' sizes and measurements are kept on file in a national database. They also regularly call back customers within 14 days of a purchase to insure their satisfaction. Furthermore, they remain ever ready to sew loose buttons and press slacks, blazers and suits whenever customers have a need, even when they are traveling away from home. As you can see, attention to detail is a quality that transcends occupations; something that Zimmer developed through that first job as a paperboy.

All of these intriguing stories validate the concept that career foundations are truly laid one skill "brick" at a time, beginning with our client's earliest and perhaps most seemingly menial jobs. These examples also help to illuminate the value of looking at the bigger picture when helping our clients to trace their career histories; we must teach them the language of transferable skills and focus on the positive learning outcomes and skill development that has occurred, especially if they cannot see these important aspects on their own. The following tips provide guidance for how to facilitate this process in career counseling:

1. Always introduce the concept of Transferable Skills to your clients - define this term and give relevant examples (perhaps taken from this article!). Help them realize that they are constantly utilizing and developing the basic skill sets they very likely gained from their earliest jobs!
2. Have your client describe the tasks and responsibilities of their first jobs to you as you jot down the skills and abilities that you recognize. Then ask them to identify what they think are the important skills and learning experiences from that job and share some of your own observations. Encourage clients to put aside negative judgments about these early jobs (if present), focusing on skills, not interests or the lack thereof.
3. The beauty of transferable skills is their ability to cross fields and professions. They may be traveling undercover, so we must elicit detailed stories and play "detective". One field's "people skills" may be another's "bedside manner". Think creatively and help our clients package themselves in the most effective way based on the needs and jargon of their targeted industry. This step is critical in all aspects of the job search process, especially resume/cover letter writing and professional interviewing.

A First For Knowledge:Transfer Ahead

One never knows where a job will lead. First jobs are a right of passage, teaching us valuable, memorable lessons to apply to future jobs throughout our careers. Sometimes the true lessons aren't readily apparent nor appreciated until years later, when we look back and can we see clearly what we learned and how we've applied it. No experience is wasted! What's your strategy? Apply these concepts to yourself and your work with clients: To learn as much as you can in each job you take; focusing on professional development, the use of new tools and technology, and on showing commitment to your co-workers, company and customers. The more you know the more you grow. As you rise (and help your clients rise) on the ladder of success, periodically look back at that first job and appreciate the lasting impressions it has made on you.

2008 Craig Harrison

Craig Harrison's first paid job, at the age of eleven, was going door-to-door selling used jokes to his neighbors in Berkeley. Today he is a speaker, trainer, consultant and coach who founded "Expressions of Excellence!" to help professionals express their sales, service and communication excellence.
Contact him at (510) 547-0664, browse ExpressionsOfExcellence.com or send e-mail to mailto:excellence@craigspeaks.com for more information.