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What did you learn at your first job?

I listened with interest to a segment on Radio 2 last week discussing whether students on summer holidays should engage in some kind of summer job.  One commentator spoke very passionately about the benefits of not just earning money but gaining practical work experience and the ability to develop a multitude of skills valuable for later life.  Others commented that pay rates were sometimes low and so it was not worth encouraging their children to try and find work.

This discussion resonated with me as over the last year or so I have been involved in a number of early career level recruitment assignments and one thing that struck me was the number of candidates who do not have any previous work experience.

This got me thinking about the variety of different jobs that I had throughout my time at School/University and the important lessons that I learnt from them.

I quickly learnt at my first supermarket job that if you were prepared to work permanent Sunday mornings that you got double pay and so you could less work hours for more money.  The pea factory taught me that if you were good at computers then you could move away from the inspection line and into a more comfortable office and my job selling vacuum cleaners that the world is made up of an eclectic mix of people and not all of them are particularly pleasant!

These life skills helped considerably when I transferred into full time employment and were much more valuable than large parts of my degree. Developing communication skills in real time situations is a vital part of our personal development.

Many are quick to dismiss these people as lazy and entitled, however I think there may be more to it.  In a world of record levels of student debt, it seems strange that more people are not working to support themselves, however maybe the cost of education is now so high that there is more pressure to achieve top marks which come at a cost of wider life experiences.

When we look at this from a HR/Recruitment position it raises some interesting questions.

  • Are we focusing too much on academics?
  • Does academic excellence trump wider experience or do candidates need to ensure a balance to support their future applications?

For me, I’d always lean towards experience as I think it’s interesting to see how people react to real life situations and so work experience can help candidates to articulate this.  I spend a lot of my winters in Austria and have witnessed first-hand the skills developed by those who move out for a ski season.  Moving to another country, securing accommodation in an area where there isn’t much and finding a job in a country where English is not the first language develops many skills such as communication, negotiation and resilience.  All good stuff for later life.

I understand that if you want to be a brain surgeon then academics are vital to this, however for many positions does it really matter that much whether a candidate got a 2.1 or a 2.2 in their sociology degree. I’d argue that it doesn’t really and would love to see a world where people are encouraged to take jobs for the experience, travel and see other places and not miss out on all of this for the sole pursuit of academic success.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting it’s a bad thing to work hard and want to achieve the best grade that you can, however I do think a balance is needed and some of these skills mentioned are just as important in the long run.

Would be hear from those in different sectors as to their view and what they learnt from their early work experiences?


“Paul Withers is an experienced HR Recruiter with extensive exposure gained across a diverse range of industry sectors. Equally happy working at entry through to director level, he is well placed to advise on any recruitment or job search challenges that you may be currently facing.