My First Job

When I was a kid in elementary school, I was given an allowance.  It was not very much, maybe enough to buy, perhaps, 3 or 4 candy bars per week.  I do, however, remember the first job i had where I earned money.

In the United States, when it snows, there is a tradition where kids go door to door, offering to shovel sidewalks for money.  I lived in Germany (as an American ex-pat).  Germans had no such tradition, so the American kids had the market cornered.

In Germany, you could start ringing doorbells quite early, like 8:00 or 8:30am on a weekend.  Germans are very disciplined and get up early.  In the US, with lazier people and no gun control, a kid who tried that would never survive to adulthood.

We had to explain to each house what the deal was — what service we were offering, etc.  I remember one lady said “What a great idea!”.

Then we had to negotiate a price, since there was no precedent, no going rate.  I remember I was squeamish about that at first, somehow finding the whole process distasteful, and would offer a very low price, with an attitude of “I’m a cute little kid, you’ll pay me more than I ask for.”.  Then I offerred to shovel this lady’s huge driveway for 5 Marks (about $1.25 at the time).  It took me a long time, I could easily have shoveled 15 Marks worth of other driveways in the time it took me to do that one, and when I was done she just paid me my 5 Marks and sent me on my way.  It was a valuable lesson: negotiate what you’re worth.

I remember this one woman said “I want you to take all the snow over here and put it over there.”.  My German wasn’t fluent, and I found words like “to”, “from”, “around”, “under” and “through” confusing — they don’t have a strict 1-1 correspondence with their English counterparts, and they get mixed up in idioms, so they’re difficult.  She went inside, and I shoveled the snow, and when she came out it turned out that I had gotten “to” and “from” mixed up.  I had to shovel twice as much snow in the opposite direction before I could collect my money.

In high school, they were showing movies and plays in the auditorium during the weekends, and I operated a business selling candy, soft drinks, and champagne there.  I was 15.  I made about 100 Marks a month.  The exchange rate by that time was such that that was about $40.  It seemed like a lot of money to me.

A lot of American kids in the US have jobs while they’re in high school.  They put in a lot more hours, and make a lot more money, than I did.  I think this is probably a bad thing, because I can’t see how all those hours can help but interfere with the hours they are putting into their education.  Also, I think that working for yourself, where you have to negotiate prices and you have costs to meet, is much more educational than working for a wage, where there isn’t much negotiation — when you work at McDonald’s, they offer you a wage and you either take it or leave it.

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