Connections: First jobs – the good, the bad and the ugly

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First jobs can be defining moments in our lives, an escalation in our independence and, best of all, money – our own money! – in our pockets. YourLifeChoices writers share their experiences for your entertainment – from tobacco farms to glue factories, air-conditioning businesses and service stations, back when someone put the petrol in your car and washed your windscreen. Now that’s a distant memory!

Olga gets stuck in
It was the 70s, I was 16 and like most teenage girls, I was interested in new clothes and shoes.

So, I looked for a school holiday job. Glue factory Clag was hiring, so my best friend and I applied and before long we were on a production line.

Our job was to check the level of glue in each bottle that rolled on by. If there was not enough, or too much, we had to snatch them off the conveyor belt.

We were given special clothing and caps to wear, but no gloves. Each time we lifted a sub-optimal bottle from the belt, we ended up with glue on our hands. Over a few days, the constant exposure to Clag would dry and crack our skin. The cracks meant that at the next shift, when our hands became covered in glue, they would sting to bejesus.

The only opportunity we had to wash our hands was during one of two 10-minute breaks over a four-hour shift. I never ate a dollop of Clag again after that stint.

As annoying as that job was, it taught me to respect people who laboured for money doing unpleasant tasks. Something young people today will probably never experience thanks to automation and better occupational health and safety laws.

Ben tries to stay cool
My first job was installing evaporative air conditioners with my next-door neighbour in the school holidays when I was in year 12 and throughout university.

It was the sort of work that definitely would not pass the occupational health and safety test these days. Not only did it require working inside a hot roof on 40-degree days through summer, but we also carried the air-conditioning units onto the roof of the house without any scaffolding in place, often on two-storey houses.

It wasn’t a job for those squeamish about heights! The best part about the job was the sense of accomplishment at the end of every day and also meeting different people from all walks of life.

Aside from working in the intense heat on some days, as already mentioned, the other difficult part of the job was trying to get your body into small nooks and crannies inside the roof to install the vents. On the rare occasions I find myself up inside my roof space these days, I marvel at how flexible I used to be crawling around between roof beams!

Janelle fights off the snakes
I grew up in a small country town in central Queensland, population about 400.

Jobs for kids were scarce. For pocket money, I collected the discarded bottles alongside the highway. Those were the days when (1) it was okay for a young girl to walk along the highway with a sack and (2) you could get a refund at the local servo – after you washed the bottles.

But my real first (holiday) job was picking tobacco on one of the many local farms in the area. As the leaves ripened, an army of pickers was assembled.

We picked the ripe leaves in rain, hail, storm and shine, toiling up and down the rows and collecting as many leaves as you could carry before dumping them in the central container.

Along the way you had to be alert for snakes – there were plenty – and cautious about stepping on the toads.

Within the hour, your hands would be stained yellow with the nicotine – or was that the pesticide? Gloves, you ask? No one wore them and I didn’t think about it at the time. Sunscreen? Pretty useless because it either washed off in the rain or dripped off with the sweat.

After the plants were stripped bare – and this took five to six picking sessions as you only picked the ripe leaves, it was stringing time. This was cushy by comparison. It involved stringing together three to four leaves at a time along a wooden stick. The sticks were then transferred to the barn for drying.

You wouldn’t be surprised to know that I don’t smoke!

Leon gets his first job by accident
My stepdad was a builder and I used to earn pocket money by cleaning up job sites. I ended up working with him for years on weekends and school holidays. Construction was hard work but fun, but I kind of fell into it so I don’t really consider it my first job.

I used to live on a pretty busy street where car accidents were commonplace. We’re talking once or twice a week. One day, when I was about 13 or 14, a guy in a cool VW Beetle crashed into another car (obviously not as cool because I can’t remember the make) and we helped him out, saying we’d be a witness and just soothing him during a pretty hairy ordeal. His name was Matt.

A couple days later, he came knocking at our door and told me his dad owned a business that made disability aids and patient care products and did I want a job. I said yes. He asked if I had a mate who wanted work. I said yes. His name was Matt, too.

So my first job was punching out plastic plugs and drilling holes in crutches, putting toilet seats on commodes and bending aluminium pipes to make walking frames and such. We earned $5 an hour and worked for two hours a night after school two days a week. We used to walk past an indoor cricket centre on our way home, where we would stop and spend our earnings on pies and pinnies. Good times.

David dons a uniform
Despite the decades, I can still clearly recall my very first real (i.e. paid) employment. I suppose it just emphasises how significant, in my life at that time, that first job was.

Our family was renting a modest weatherboard house in West Pymble, on Sydney’s North Shore. I was attending high school in North Sydney, so it was bus and train every day. However, in the school holidays between terms one and two, at the age of 14, I landed a job at a Mobil service station on Victoria Road, Gladesville. Gladesville and West Pymble are not that far apart, but for me, it was bus-train-bus and took 90 minutes each way. In the days before hand-held devices, I certainly caught up on a lot of reading – people did that back then!

I loved working in that service station. Whether re-filling and polishing the oil bottles displayed in the steel racks between the bowsers, serving customers in the days of ‘five-point driveway service’, or ‘helping’ the mechanic in the lube-bay and workshop, I was never bored. Even cleaning the wash rooms and staff kitchen or swabbing out the showroom floor, it was all a new and wonderful adventure. On reflection, one of the best aspects of all was bonding with a diverse collection of workmates.

And each day, I would trek up busy Victoria Road to the nearest shops to buy my lunch –  very grown-up and independent.

In hindsight, it was far too good to last and I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. Sometime towards the end of my second week, the avuncular training manager called me into his office to advise me “they would have to let me go”.  No, my work was not the problem, however my age was. Since I would not turn 15 until September, the next school holidays, I was underage and working illegally! A global enterprise the size of Mobil couldn’t risk a fuss, not even for me. The training manager let me down gently, allowing me to wear my Mobil uniform until the end of my shift.

Then, vowing to return in the September school holidays, somewhat reminiscent of General MacArthur, I hung up my uniform and donned my ‘civvies’. And I did return, but by bike, courtesy of my maternal grandmother Gungi’s generosity on my birthday. With a following wind and not too many red lights, my travel time was reduced to about 30 minutes each way. I was saving a poultice (towards my first set of wheels), had never been fitter and was now earning an extra 15 shillings a week. I continued at Mobil Gladesville until defecting to BP St Ives, walking distance from my new front door. However, now sporting my first set of wheels, I drove!

What was your first job? Did it cross any occupational health and safety boundaries?

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Total Comments: 19
  1. 0

    At the Age of 10, I became a grocery bot (after School) at the local supermarket. Had to deliver heavy cartons of groceries in one of those bikes with the small front wheel and the large wooden crate at the front in which to put the cartons of groceries. So hard to power and steer. There I was a little kid, having to put sacks of potatoes on the bike and deliver them in the traffic. the sacks were so heavy they would up end the bike. But hey I got 3 shillings and sixpence per hour. I thought I was so rich. The law and OH&S would not allow it these days. But it taught me the value of hard work and self reliance which helped on my way in life as I went on to study to become a doctor and the specialise in a branh of medicine.

  2. 0

    Everyone would be aware of Fibro in Houses and other buildings as well as Pipe Lagging for Steam Pipes. How Dangerous This Material Is Now and Covered Up Workers Are With Breathing Apparatus. (Nothing New Really It Was Known Early Last Century)
    My first job was working at Garden Island Naval Dockyard Sydney working in Asbestos Riddle Ships in the 1970’s till 1975.
    As with all other workers told nothing to wary yourself about, than procceded to pay Dirt Money for some workers to satisfy the union.( So called different Area Of Ship).
    So you end up with a complaint much later in Life, if the Bus Dosn’t Get You First.
    First experience could end up the cause of your Death.(For First Work Experience end up in a OH&S Nightmare.)

  3. 0

    While at High School in the 1960’s, country town, I worked after school and Saturday mornings at Coles. I worked on the counter but was painfully shy. They put me and another girl in the room where the sweets were packed. This had huge boxes of sweets and chocolates. We had to weigh, measure, put them in paper bags and close by twisting the corners. I got very good at the twisting technique. I can hardly believe the next bit even now: we were allowed to eat as much as we liked, so long as we did not take the sweets out of the room. I must have over-dosed on chocolate regularly (and I still love it). When I finished High School the manager offered me an office job with the company so I must have impressed someone. But I just wanted to “get out town.” It was a great start to working.

  4. 0

    My first job was at a sweet (lolly) factory – in the office and switchboard, the bane of my life was every day at 2.00 we connected with the main office in London and putting that connection through was so difficult on
    those old plug-in switchboards. The sweet sickly smell of the lolly mixtures was so cloying – I gave my notice in after only 2 weeks – and started a new completely different job in a Solicitors office, where I started to learn shorthand and typing, and each morning the first very important job was to put the kettle on brew the tea for the three Senior Solicitors !!

  5. Profile Photo

    Occasional after school/weekend work – in a small country village for the local stock feed/fodder and produce store. ‘Boys’ were constantly taunted, teased and sometimes humiliated by the puerile yet harmless actions of the grown men, particularly when any of the local ‘fillies’ – giggling, sneaking surreptitious glances and whispering to each other behind their hands – paraded past the workplace. That ‘indoctrination’ to the trite and challenging ways of (the former) male dominated workplace conditioned me for later fulltime employment apprenticed to a vehicle manufacturer and ultimately the armed services.
    Full ‘man size’ bags of various grains or grain product or potatoes were constantly ‘humped’ by we boys to load trucks. Memory fails me as regards weight of various products but I recall them being so heavy we young-uns were bent at a right angle to lump em – to perpetual goading from the men were we to stumble or falter. Needless to say, were any girlies passing, we would then put on our best show by straightening up as best we could manage – to the jeers, catcalls and jibes of our mates.
    Loved every minute of it, gave me a sense of independence and camaraderie with the added bonus of earning $2/hr, well worth it – boy we earned it.

  6. 0

    My friend and I made some pocket money cleaning windows at a retirement village, did not last long because they often did not pay us more than a $1 and kept asking us to do other odd jobs. My first real job was in a shoe shop when my teacher recommended me to his mate who managed the shop. I also remember working a cash register in a supermarket for awhile, those days you had to push the buttons hard to make them work. I then left to do an office apprentice with the SEC in Victoria after my family and friends talked me into not doing my HSC which I regretted. I had planned to be a teacher of some sort.
    I think it was easy to get work in those days now it is so hard for young people to get a start. I see our local supermarket employing young people and it keeps changing I think when they reach a certain age or lucky for some move on to uni or other jobs. Those kids are the lucky few who can even get work locally.

    • 0

      You must have been looking for work before the 1970s , the unemployment rate was much higher in the 70s than it is now.

    • 0

      No actually it was the mid to late 1970’s in rural Victoria.I think the unemployment numbers are counting casual and temporary work and these days it is hard to find secure long term employment. I never had an y trouble going from one job to another until the 1990’s.

    • 0

      Unemployment rates during the 1970 to 2000 averaged 7.5% in Australia and peaked at different times in 80s -90s around 11% which makes today’s 5.5% look pretty good. I remember when they would line up at Centrelink out the doors and when there was a lineup at the railway for a job as a porter. I suppose if you were looking for part time work in a supermarket in country Victoria things may have been different but I had to move right across the state for work at 17 and kids today should be prepared to do the same.

    • 0

      During that time we joined unions to protect our working conditions which means strikes and no pay. Our youth today should be prepared to do the same to fight the shift to part time work. But they won’t will they , too much effort.

  7. 0

    I had a few minor jobs from the age of 14 but I started shift work at 17. Cleaning out chemical tanks. Well paid work but hard , it was very hot inside the tanks with high caustic content , a lot of it done with jackhammers, some jackhammering up the walls to loosen scale, dangerous as well ,chemical burns were common. Some of my jobs later were even more dangerous but again paid well. At 17 I drank at the bar like all the other men, I guess I was doing a mans job so no one bothered to ask my age.

    • 0

      By the way unemployment was very high at that stage I was living a very long way from home and lucky to get the job. It was much more difficult than it is now with the unemployment rate so low these kids have got it easy.

  8. 0

    So what is the point?
    The reality for millennial is a part time job with poor or no conditions, being on call 24/7 and able to be sacked at a moment’s notice.
    That is what has happened over the past 5 years. So what’s your point?

    • 0

      The laws around part time jobs is disgusting and without a doubt is having a very negative effect on our community. The laws need to change but only strong action by unions will do that and millennials need to joint unions and make that happen. It won’t be handed to them.

  9. 0

    My first paying job was at Anthony Hordens- a big department store in Sydney- in the china and glassware dept. The seniors in charge were very bossy at first, but by the time I left to start nursing training, they were just like a lot of extra mothers. I received 6 pound 1/4 per week. 1/3 of this went to pay board at home, 1/3 was for transport- train / ferry to Manly. And the last 2 pound was mine. It didn’t pay for much.

  10. 0

    My father (b. 1922) left school at age 12. You could do that back then. His father was a farmer and had a butcher’s shop. Dad went to work for him. Had to do the deliveries on a bicycle, paddling furiously while barking dogs chased after him. In his spare time, he and a mate went camping, took their ferrets and caught rabbits. Excellent rifle skills, too. Then the war started. He signed up, served in the NT until he was old enough (21) to serve overseas. In the Army he learnt to be a mechanic. Came home and married my Mum, who lived next door. Then he went back to the Army as a civilian and worked as a mechanic until he retired.

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