This is the 3rd and final post in a weekend series where I am celebrating the Labor Day holiday by reminiscing about what I learned from my first part time job at Wal-Mart that I held beginning halfway through my sophomore year in High School and continuing through the end of my sophomore year in College.
I learned Fiscal Responsibility
My parents were not wealthy and they couldn’t buy me a car when I turned 16 so it was up to me to make the car payments. My parents paid for the insurance and signed for the loan but they made it very clear to me that I was responsible for the monthly car payments. So now I had to make a budget which consisted of fast food, gas, beer, cigarettes and other incidentals (yes, I was not perfect when I was in high school) and I had to make sure I had enough left over to pay the bank. I learned how to balance a check book, reconcile a bank statement and fill out my income tax form. Yes, my dad made me fill out my own 1040EZ form (with guidance of course) and I have filled out my own taxes ever since.
How many young adults graduate from college and enter the work force without these basic skills? It’s a shame.
I learned that Welfare spending is huge
After a year or so working on the sales floor I noticed that the first week in every month was much busier than the other weeks. I couldn’t figure this out and one day I asked a co-worker why this was. Her response was – “It’s mother’s day.” What do you mean? Mother’s day is just once a year in May. She then explained that welfare checks go out the first of the month and then mom is the most popular person in town because her kids (who were really adults) would then come see her so they could take her shopping.
And don’t get me wrong. I saw, first hand, the truly poor who needed this safety net to survive and I’m not advocating eliminating this system but only saying that those who work in retail (especially discount retail stores) know how big Welfare is because they see it every month. Welfare is on a path where it will quickly be unsustainable and we have to reform it.
I’ve explored the welfare system in a previous post and showed how welfare doesn’t reduce the poverty rate. As a High School student, I had no idea how much of our government budget was represented by entitlement programs nor did I know how much they would increase 25 years later but my days at Wal-Mart gave me the first hints that we had a serious issue with programs such as Welfare moving away from their intended purpose of a safety net.
I learned about Capitalism
As I alluded to earlier, my dad told me to participate in the company stock purchase program as soon as I started work at Wal-Mart. For those of you who follow the stock market and specifically Wal-Mart, you’ll know that Wal-Mart’s stock split twice during the time I worked there (1985-1989) and when I quit in the Fall of 1989, the stock that I sold paid for a some of my final two years of college. Some of this windfall was due to timing since the period between 1982 and 1992 saw Wal-Mart stock appreciate about 600% but I had to make that investment before I could reap the benefits and the wisdom of my father was to thank there.
I learned the intangible skills required to work in business
In retail, the customer is always right so I had to bite my lip and take a servant attitude to make sure the customer left happy. It made me mad when I knew someone walked out of the store with a new piece of merchandise that was obtained by lying (they didn’t purchase the defective merchandise at Wal-Mart or they were at fault in the original damaged merchandise) but when I complained to my managers, they did a good job of letting me to see the bigger picture. The managers knew the customers were lying too but if the customers left the store feeling good about their experience, they’d come back next week and spend twice that amount of money on other merchandise. And they were right. A teenager doesn’t always take the time to step back and see the long term implications of your actions and I learned that skill during my time at Wal-Mart.
As a teenager, Wal-Mart placed a great deal of trust in me to handle money transactions, reconcile the register each night, sell guns, order merchandise, setup displays that would move product and be on the front lines in a selling environment. I won’t lie, for a long time I struggled with the fact that mom and dad weren’t there to show me the ropes and make sure I did the right thing. I went through a slow transition from believing that I wasn’t capable of handling complex, adult situations to basically running a department and making very real business decisions. It was something like a basic training but on a mental level instead of a physical level where I had to be pushed out of my comfort zone and realize that my limitations weren’t real and that I could push much further. Confidence in one’s self is intoxicating.
I grew, not only physically, but psychologically and the main reason I now have good people skills and emotional intelligence is a direct result of my experiences at Wal-Mart. I went on to graduate with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering but I consider the 4+ years I spent at Wal-Mart #431 in Paducah, KY as the period when I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Business/Life.
I’m a father and in a few years my kids will be turning 16 and I pray that I have the same courage and wisdom that my parents had to push my children into areas which provide the valuable life lessons that are learned from a part time job.