There are no dead-end jobs. Every job requires skills and knowledge, and every job can be performed better or worse because of the talent, initiative and creativity of the job holder.
Some jobs require very specialized knowledge and skills: air traffic controller, medical lab tech, dog groomer. They don’t have much of a career ladder, but they aren’t dead-enders, either. People in those jobs will (or will not) be reliable, show good judgment, and have the patience to work with difficult people. They will (or will not) show a desire to improve their performance and understand their customers and the business.
Retail clerk, ditch digger, administrative assistant — dead-end, or stepping stone? It depends on the employee and the boss.
The dead-end boss will hire an employee to do a set of tasks. He doesn’t want suggestions — “Just do exactly as I tell you, no more and no less.” He doesn’t see the value of spending time talking with his employees, answering questions or training them to do more than the tasks they were hired to do.
His employees might be interested in the business and have good ideas, but he sees them as a hired pairs of hands, voices to answer customers’ questions with a memorized response. They don’t have much choice but to disengage their brains and do what they are told to keep their jobs.
If an employee is lucky enough to get a job as a clerk at Flynn’s Retail Store, Mr. Flynn will take the time to explain the art of displaying the merchandise, how to keep track of inventory and why that is important, and how to work with the variety of people who come into the store.
Flynn’s may employ just two people, but those two will be given the opportunity to learn as much as they want about running a small retail store. And they will learn some solid skills that will help them succeed in any job.
The dead-end employee won’t take advantage of the opportunity to learn what is right in front of him. He sees that Flynn’s has just two employees and there is no career ladder, so he does what he is asked until he can find a job he thinks will offer opportunity.
Flynn’s would allow him to discover skills and talents he may not realize he has, but that’s not going to happen if he walks in the door in the morning with no curiosity in the work or a willingness to take a look at his own work habits and weak skills.
Every job provides opportunities to demonstrate good work habits and develop skills — how to follow directions; how to ask the boss to clarify his directions; how to communicate effectively; how to deal with difficult people; how to organize your work; and how to take an honest look at your own abilities and make improvements.
When I was working with college students they didn’t always realize the value of their summer jobs. I would ask them what they learned about themselves or what they found interesting or challenging in those jobs. With a little coaxing some students would admit that they were proud of doing great work in jobs that were less-than glamorous.
I remember a student who talked with real pride about learning to dig a hole that met the required measurements exactly. Plus, the sides of the hole didn’t fall in; the surrounding landscape was undamaged and the posts that went into the holes required little leveling.
It was hard work. But he showed up on time, perfected his hole-digging technique, provided his co-worker with a good hole in the dirt and kept the boss and customer happy by not damaging the surrounding flower beds or grass. If he carries that work ethic with him throughout his life, he will never be in a dead-end job.
And I remember an engineering student who had a paid internship in a large corporation over the summer. He was in a desk job in a comfortable office, surrounded by people ready and willing to answer any questions he might have.
He saw the job as a pain. He didn’t like the requirement to show up at 8 a.m. during his summer break. He didn’t think he was paid very well. He didn’t like the options for lunch. He didn’t take much interest in the actual work; he thought it was tedious and boring. He had a miserable summer.
I made the shoe sole inker daily quota just twice. But I found the manufacturing process and my co-workers fascinating; lessons that I learned on that job are with me today. Every job, every employee, bosses both good and bad — they are only dead ends if that’s how we treat them.
Virginia Detweiler provides human resources services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington. Column questions can be submitted to her email address at firstname.lastname@example.org. Those used will be edited to remove information that would identify the sender. She can also be reached at 509-529-1910.