Do you remember your first job? If you”re like roughly half of us in today”s workforce (myself included), you were most likely in your teens, and the job was part-time. And if you”re like me, while you earned a little, you learned a lot.
Although participation in the youth labor force has declined steadily since at least 1989 (see this white paper compiled by Patrick J. Holwell, of the Arapahoe-Douglas Workforce Center in Denver), those early part-time after-school and summer jobs do much to build valuable job and personal skills that will be deployed to even greater use later in life. As leaders of very young workers, we mustn’t underestimate the influence of that first job, and our roles in shaping young people”s view of the world of work.
From the ages of 16 to 20, I worked as a “student assistant” at the Regency Square Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library. Yesterday, the branch held a celebration of its 40th anniversary, and someone was thoughtful enough to put my name on the invitation list. The picture accompanying this post shows yours truly, flanked on either side by two of my first bosses (including my first-ever job interviewer), joined by a couple of others from my library days.
What a great job it was. But not so much for the duties we performed, which were less about literature than inventory management. And, at $1.60 an hour, it sure wasn”t the money. So what was it that kept me there, and engaged, for 4 years? It was the same things that keep your employees, of all ages, engaged today. While much – indeed VERY much – has shifted in the workplace since the late ”70”s, the fundamentals of engagement have remained rock-solid.
Good leadership. My bosses probably covered very little about leadership and human motivation in their Master of Library Science programs in graduate school, but somehow, they knew how to treat people.
These professionals also taught me about showing up on time, properly attired; keeping up with my name badge; looking for ways to help others when my work appeared to be caught up; the fact that I was not indispensable, and that my job security depended, in large measure, on my performance; finding creative ways to help customers; and a host of other valuable life lessons.
Meaningful work. There”s nothing particularly exciting about sorting and shelving books (our number one function) and our bosses knew that. So, they were careful to season our days with as much variety as possible – a few hours of shelving, followed by an hour of customer contact at the front desk, a special project, or maybe running the projector for the classic movies we showed (something the geekier ones of us truly relished.) They were also careful to point out how our work enabled our branch to be the top performer in the library system, and how that affected our budget, which in turn affected the number of part-time hours distributed to our location.
Just rewards. As city employees, we weren”t eligible for incentive bonuses, and the librarians didn”t exactly go around handing out 5 dollar bills to the student who shelved the most books accurately in an hour, but they did know what motivated us – each of us – individually. In other words, they subscribed to the notion that, when it comes to rewards, one size fits one. Our most effective incentives came in the form of work assignments, both hours and duties. They knew that my least favorite task was sorting incoming books, and that I much preferred working the checkout desk. Some of my friends wanted only enough hours to pay for gas and date money; others wanted to work as much as possible. We quickly learned that the quality of our work seemed to have a direct relationship to our goals. If ever I slacked off, my next week”s hours would be cut, and those hours would be spent – you guessed it – sorting the 800”s down to 6 Dewey Decimal places.
A good “fit”. The library gang was a diverse lot that eventually chose wildly varying career paths, to include: nurse, art appraiser, auto mechanic, two-star general in the US Army, and even a librarian. But, at the time, most of us “fit” the job, and the job fit us. It fit our temperament and our interests. It worked with our school, extracurricular, and social schedules. Of course if provided some income, but also, not insignificantly, given the age group, a great social environment. I”m still in touch with many from those days so long ago; a few remain my best friends today; one introduced me to my wife.
This simple library job, my first job, remains a good demonstration of what we”ve always known about employee engagement. Compensation is secondary to other factors: good leadership, the chance to do meaningful work, rewards that provide a good incentive, and a job that just “fits”.
Those things don”t change.
Richard Hadden is a leadership speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations improve their business results by virtue of a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He and Bill Catlette are the authors of the popular “Contented Cows” leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. Their newest book, Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Learn more about them and their work at ContentedCows.com.