The value of a job

“Ain’t nothing free, boy.”

These were the “words of wisdom” from my former step-father, given to me when I was 15 years old and, to him, living under his roof without and eating his food without pitching in. So that year, he put me to work on the dairy — shoveling manure, feeding the cows and herding them into the barn for the 5 a.m. milking.

Also that year, I got my first job — washing dishes for a locally owned seafood restaurant in East Texas. The couple who owned the joint — an elderly couple who had a staff full of 15- to 17-year-old high school students — paid us in cash to avoid taxes. I’m pretty sure I made less than minimum wage.

It was 1990 (20 years ago), and I had joined the workforce. I didn’t get paid for the farm work (unless you count the roof and the food), but the $50 or so I made each week from scrubbing dishes and recycling hushpuppies (yes, we did) meant the world to me.

And in the 10 years that followed, I held just about every job imaginable. I graduated from dishes to bagging groceries at my local Winn-Dixie when I turned 16. I had a one-week stint at a fast food chain. I spent one summer in college digging post holes for fences. I spent another summer loading 40-pound bags of dog food into a truck (my arms were never bigger).

My dad hired me and a friend one year to help the maintenance crew at an auto parts factory. I called my girlfriend long distance a lot and played poker for much of that stint.

I worked the graveyard shift for a Chevron station one year.

The next, I worked the graveyard shift as a front desk clerk at a motel. In fact, I’ve been front desk at three different hotels in my “career,” which had its perks. In 1999, my wife and I (we were merely dating then) got $15 a night at the Holiday Inn near Disney World because of my job. Not too shabby.

I waited tables at a Mexican food restaurant one semester, and in Louisiana, I was a tuxedo-pants-wearing waiter at a five-star steak and wine restaurant.

My worst job ever?

A Christmas spent working at Toys R Us. You can imagine the insanity I endured. Shoveling manure had nothing on this job.

But I worked because I had to. And I worked hard.

I was only fired once, but it had nothing to do with slacking off or anything bad. One of my hotels let me go on the last day of a semester one year because summer was a down time. I was still devastated. So I spent that summer with my weirdest job — putting together ceiling fans and lamps for a locally owned electric warehouse. I got the job two days later.

My longest era of unemployment? Two weeks — after I began my career in journalism, my wife and I moved from Dallas to Houston, and it took me two weeks to find a job. I was a sports writer in Dallas, and I was having a difficult time finding similar work in Houston. Out of desperation, I interviewed for a salesman job for a phone book company in one of the city’s suburbs.

I’m no salesman, so needless to say, I bombed the interview. On the way back to Houston, I stopped at a small weekly newspaper in another suburb to see if they had an opening. I was still wearing my suit, and when I walked in and asked for an application, the woman at the front desk asked me, “You here for the editor job?”

Without hesitation, I said yes.

Ten minutes later, I was an editor for the first time.

Funny how things work out.

I consider myself lucky that, first off, I have a job at a time when many aren’t as fortunate; and secondly, that I’m doing something I love. I value my job, and as I’ve done for the past 20 years, I put a lot of myself into it.

I’m breaking a written rule of journalism by waiting until now — near the end of this column — to get to the point, which is …

In August, The Herald will publish a four-part series on the value of a job. We’re going to look at what a job means to a family and what losing that job does to a family — both the economic and emotional impacts. We’re going to dig in to why our local government feels tax breaks are a “necessary evil” in attracting these jobs and why “jobs” are so important in local elections.

We’re also going to analyze what one single job means to our county. In preparation for this series, I’ve already learned that when an industry or company brings in new jobs, more jobs pop up around Lee County as a result. On the flip side, when an industry cuts jobs, a domino effect leads to others reducing their workforce as well.

I don’t feel like our jobs should define who we are as people, but they are certainly an important part of our lives. Many of us spend more time at work Monday through Friday then we do anywhere else (not counting time spent sleeping). And when we lose those jobs, we lose much more than a paycheck.

Between now and August, we’ll be looking for families and employers to help us with our series, so be on the lookout if you feel like your story is one worth telling.

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