Rite of passage: First job tales


Donald Adams still has his first paycheck. After four hours of sweeping up the garage at Birchard Buick on South Street, Adams took home $7.15.

It was 1973, the Richmond native was almost 14 years old and he thought that first check was "pretty nice."

"It was big place and it took all morning to sweep," said Adams, who is now a mechanical engineer in Lancaster. "But it taught me perseverance."

That first job is a universal rite of passage for most American workers, who are recognized the first Monday of every September since the creation of Labor Day in 1894, when Congress passed an act making it a legal holiday. Everyone has to start somewhere -- and for most young teens in Berkshire County about 20 years ago, that meant slinging a newspaper delivery bag over the bike handles and making sure neighbors got the morning or evening edition of The Berkshire Eagle on time, and dry.

Slinging papers and flipping burgers might not feel like an important life step for young workers, but Heather Shogry-Williams, youth director at Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, likes to remind students she helps that it really is.

"I always tell them that first job is so important," said Shogry-Williams, whose first job was busing tables in a restaurant. "It provides an opportunity to develop the basic skills employers are looking for, such as good attendance, punctuality, good communication and dressing appropriately. These tools will ensure your success in any occupation you choose for the rest of your life."

David Feldman and his Redline bicycle covered two paper routes in 1982 for Newsday on Long Island. The 43-year-old, whose family has a home in Monterey, said even though he was a kid, he took the job seriously. The responsibility of handling money, interacting with adults and learning to be professional shaped Feldman's career.

"I started with newspapers and worked my way up to condos," said Feldman, who now sells apartments in New York City.

According to a report released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from April to July the number of employed youth, ages 16 to 24, increased by 2.1 million to 19.7 million. The number grows sharply this time every year due to high school students looking for summer work, and also because recent college graduates are entering the labor market looking for that first break.

But the current youth employment rate is still at its lowest since the 1940s, according to Shogry-Williams. Now, more than ever, people are applying for the types of jobs that would normally give young workers their first break.

"The jobs are there. They just have to do more digging and can't give up," said Shogry-Williams, who works with students to help them find and prepare for work. "Sometimes the old fashioned way is the way to go. I tell my students to drive around town and fill out applications. Get out there and hit the pavement and be persistent."

Sometimes that first job can serve as a motivation for an otherwise unthought of career path. In 1966, Christine Jordan was 17 and thought she'd get to stand behind the counter at M. Solomon Furs and Fashion in Pittsfield, look pretty and wave to her friends Thursday nights as they cruised.

Instead, she spent most of her time in a dingy back room behind the children's department making hundreds of bows in preparation for the holiday season.

"I'd come in and they'd say, ‘This is bow day today,' " she said. "I'd be down there for hours. I did it because I wanted to work."

Jordan would wind the ribbon in a special machine that secured the bow, then fluff each bow by hand. After several years of working part-time jobs like this, Jordan enrolled in Berkshire Community College. She later went on to teach elementary school in Pittsfield for 35 years.

"I didn't want to do all these jobs for the rest of my life," said the 65-year-old who now lives in Lenox. "I was so thrilled to leave waitressing."

Good or bad, the first job is something most have experienced, like a badge of honor in the adult world meant to be shared in anecdotes at dinner parties, distant memories of a person you once were. The stranger the job, the better the story. Maureen O'Brien Henault's first job was chasing strewn clothes in the women's dressing room at the Berkshire Coat Factory store on Oak Street in Pittsfield. Unlike today's dressing rooms with individual stalls for privacy, in 1964 it was one large room where women undressed and threw clothes they didn't want all over.

"It was the quite the job," said O'Brien Henault, who made less than $2 an hour at the time. "It was a riot."

Today, she remembers the job with a laugh and recalls her sense of pride in being able to buy her own clothes with her paycheck and store discount.

"I learned to work for what I wanted," she said. "Nobody gave it to me. I was one of seven. My mother couldn't afford those clothes."

O'Brien Henault is now retired from Crane & Co. after working 20 years as a machine operator making envelopes.

"I worked for 44 years after that [first job], so I guess I did OK," she said.


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