First jobs: the good, bad and ugly

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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Written by Janelle Ward

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