College students who this summer land an internship, experience a mission trip, do academic research or go on an expedition are privileged. Most are grateful for the opportunity. Many of their fellow students will spend the summer on ordinary workaday jobs; some of whom simply continue with the part-time, even full-time job they have during semesters. Some of those jobs are appropriately weather-related: on landscaping, as a caddy, in the tourist sector and the like. Others will be in retail or in a small office. Of course, a fair number of college students will, more or less, be unemployed this summer.
In days gone by, summer college jobs were more likely than today to be in a factory or in construction. Government contracts, a more robust manufacturing base and consumer demand allowed for student employment in those settings. The industrial, farm and construction work for students in days gone by was a school for virtue—at least in the foggy memory of some old-timers.
Novelist Richard Ford, whose latest is Let Me Be Frank With You (Harper Collins, 2014), was a railroad hand during his college summers. Check the engine oil, the brakes, the couplings, the trucks; keep an eye on signals; don’t let engineers in the yard hit any railroad cars or people. After awhile, Ford took the controls at night while the engineer seemingly dozed off. He moved 100 cars from one track to another, keepings an eye on other workers, staying aware of the engine’s brakes, throttle and gauges. It sounds intimidating, he admits, but a conscientious “19-year old boy could do these things. They let me do them.” That kind of work, Ford says in New York Times (10/20/13), taught him plenty about regular people.
Dave Shiflett is now a songwriter. In Wall St. Journal (4/24/15) he recounts his college summers moving furniture and working in a warehouse, which included some welding and driving a forklift. The experience was as good as a course in multiculturalism or in physics, especially the physics of safely (or in Shiflett’s case, dangerously) operating a tractor or a welding torch. There is, he writes, value in the unglamorous “grit and glory of traditional summer work.”
Be it in retail, in a restaurant, in an air-conditioned office or with a service agency, all summer jobs (like all jobs that basically conform to the plan of God) can be profound. Follow these steps (not necessarily in this order):
#1. Observe. Pay attention to those around you; fellow workers, customers, suppliers and others. Get beyond what’s on the computer screen. Put aside your own media device. Ask some good questions.
#2. Judge. Reflect on the bigger picture. For example, why are people paid what they are paid? Beyond the normal grousing about the boss, why does this place feel angry? Or maybe why are people here so dedicated? Is this company going anywhere? Sometime after each shift (or at least regularly), jot down these reflections.
#3. Act. Try to talk with someone about the tension between your tangible experience and your picture of an ideal world. If your father isn’t your workplace boss, try expressing this to him. Or among your drinking friends go a tad deeper by articulating this tension. Not by complaining about work, which everyone does. But creatively grapple with the possibilities and also the limitations of your workplace and its workers, including yourself. And then, take your wisdom back to the classroom in August.
Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work (INITIATIVES, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)