Summer Jobs: An American Tradition

Did you have summer jobs when you were young?  Did you work part-time jobs when you were a student?

Jon Steinberg did.  Today, he is President of BuzzFeed, a global media company.  In a recent article, he wrote of his experiences as a part-time worker in many jobs during his youth.

Laying sod makes your hands and knees really black at day's end.

Laying sod makes your hands and knees really black at day's end.

Steinberg’s final quote in the article struck me as typically American.  He said, “I can't wait for my young children to get summer and after-school jobs. And I hope these experiences will be as meaningful to them as they were to me.” 

Even though he is a high-level officer of a successful internet company, Steinberg still values his early-life lessons learned in the low-skilled workforce--so much so that he wants the same experiences for his children.  Was this true for you?

In my teens and early twenties, I had a number of jobs: maintenance work, busing and waiting tables, landscaping, bartending, and answering phones for a pizza company.  My parents thought this was good for their children to develop a work ethic, a sense of responsibility, and an understanding of money and budgets.  Many Americans feel the same way.

If you are an immigrant or expatriate in the United States, what were your own teenage experiences with part-time work or summer jobs?  Did your parents encourage it or forbid it?  In your home country, what are the cultural expectations of students in their teen years?  If you are a parent, do you encourage your children to get a part-time or summer job?

If you are a native-born American, what were your summer jobs, and what did they teach you?  Do you believe students should have part-time jobs today?  If you have children, do they work part time after school or on summer vacation?

In the spirit of Jon Steinberg, I'd like to share my own personal early work history here.

Rochester Dairy Queen

Rochester Dairy Queen

Age 12: Rochester (MI) Dairy Queen (owned by my aunt and uncle)

Wages: $.50/hour ($3.50 in 2013 dollars)

Work: washing windows and sweeping up litter in the parking lot

What I learned: Being kind and gracious to one's employees.  One very hot summer day, my uncle told me to come inside the building for a while to cool off.  “I’m not paying my workers to get heat stroke!” he joked.


Age 16: Rochester (MI) Dairy Queen (summer job)

Work: serving customers drinks, ice cream, hot dogs

What I learned: Egalitarianism: If there’s a hungry line of customers out the door, the only way to get everyone served is to have all hands on deck.  Even the boss has to roll up his/her sleeves and make banana splits sometimes.


Age 17: Rochester (MI) Elks Club (year-round, part-time job)

Work: busboy (clearing dirty dishes, wiping down tables, and re-setting them for new customers)

What I learned: 1) Waitresses work really hard for their money.  2) When a shift gets really busy, there is no such thing as “my section” vs. “your section.”  We’re all in this together.



Age 17: Avon Broach & Machine Co. (summer job)

Work: maintenance worker (doing odd jobs)

What I learned: 1) Outdoor labor is hard: When you’re hot-tar sealing a roof in July, the rooftop temperature is at least 10º hotter than the air temperature.  2) The power of a compliment: One day the boss told me, “I would be proud to call you Son.”  I will never forget those kind words.


I learned to operate a commercial grading tractor. (photo source:

I learned to operate a commercial grading tractor. (photo source:

Age 18-21: Vidosh Brothers Landscaping Co. (while in college)

Wages: $2.25/hour ($9.75 in 2013 dollars)

Work: landscape worker (three summers), landscape foreman (one summer)

What I learned: How to operate large equipment, how to plan a day’s work for your crew, and how to take pride in a day’s hard work.


Age 24: Campus Inn (part-time job while in graduate school)

Work: waiter/bartender

What I learned: 1) I could never survive professionally in the fast-paced world of food service.  My service was friendly but not very efficient.  2) Be a better tipper, be more patient and understanding of overworked servers.


Age 24: Domino’s Pizza (part-time job while in graduate school)

Work: phone answerer

What I learned: 1) On the phone order slip, "GB" stands for ground beef, and "B" stands for bacon.  A kosher Jewish customer will not accept a pizza with "B," even if you suggest he just “pick it off.”  2) Meals are free when you work at a pizza company.  Free food is much appreciated if you’re a poor student. 

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.