‘Now I can look busy while doing nothing’: what Guardian readers learned from their summer jobs

Whether you’re scrubbing dishes in a restaurant or picking up stones on a golf course, there’s nothing as educational as holiday work

‘The smell lingered long after my shift had finished’

Rhianna Lindsay-Nieto, product manager, London

My first summer job was to scrub dishes for a large restaurant chain in the late 1990s. It was filthy work and the smell of leftover food lingered long after my shift had finished. My role appeared to be despised by the waiting staff, who slammed down dishes, splattering ketchup all over my oversized men’s kitchen scrubs.

The lesson I learned: The job taught me to always be friendly and charming to get anywhere from the lowliest of positions. It worked. By the end of the summer, I was manning the restaurant bar, making boozy coffees for guests and helping myself to the after-dinner chocolate mints. This was a massive promotion as far as my 16-year-old self was concerned.

‘I learned to tell callers that my boss was always busy’

Leah Hazard, midwife and author, Glasgow

call centre worker
‘My supervisor told me I was always too nice to less important callers ...’ Photograph: Posed by model/Hero Images/Getty Images

I worked as an unpaid intern for a Broadway production company. This mainly involved organising the company’s extensive, dusty and crumbling archives, going through playbills of obscure 20s and 30s shows to see if we could find a plot line to recycle and restocking the office’s fridges and candy jars. I learned to tell callers that my boss (whose Tony awards took up almost as much space as his desk) was always busy. The phone calls appeared to be my downfall: my supervisor me always told me that I was “too nice” to less important callers.

The lesson I learned: I learned my weakness was really a strength, as I’m now a triage midwife and a large part of my job involves the provision of guidance and reassurance to distressed women.

‘Nothing is as it seems in the supermarket’

Lucy, Perth, Australia

In the early 90s I worked at a potato factory. Some days I would be bagging potatoes but that job was usually given to the stronger, full-time staff. Weakling uni students – such as myself – were given the job of sprinkling peat on top of newly washed potatoes that tumbled down a conveyor belt towards us. A machine washed all the snaily, wormy, maggoty, dull soil off the potatoes and we covered them in something darker, lusher and invertebrate-free.

The lesson I learned: That nothing is as it seems in the supermarket. Freshly dug potatoes do not come out of the earth looking that good.

‘It was back-breaking, monotonous, sisyphean work’

Justin, social researcher, Kent

Age 17, I was employed as a stone picker on a golf course that was in the process of being built. In order to get the greens and fairways to drain properly, a big tractor with a rake would drive slowly up and down, bringing stones to the surface. We would follow behind with heavy-duty plastic bags and collect them – for 10 hours a day. In the baking heat. The harder you worked and more stones you collected, the heavier the bag was to carry. The supervisors were merciless and the job was possibly my single most unpleasant experience of employment.

The lesson I learned: It was back-breaking, monotonous, sisyphean work which taught me several things: that I am not cut out for manual labour; that hangovers make it worse; and that I hate golf.

‘I earned a lot and spent little’

Andrew Hankinson, writer, Newcastle upon Tyne

Barman pint
‘The pub work was less well-paid, but less unpleasant ...’ Photograph: millann/Getty/iStockphoto

I did lots of summer jobs, but the year that sticks out is 1999, when I worked as a labourer on a building site by day, and in a pub at night. The labouring work mainly involved carrying things, such as heavy, three-metre plasterboards. It was unpleasant, but well paid. The pub work was less well paid, but less unpleasant, too. I also worked during the weekends, so I earned a lot and spent little.

The lesson I learned: I saved enough for my first proper trip away with friends, which opened my mind to the wider world and its possibilities.

‘I would get drenched in foul-smelling, maggoty, semi-liquid gunk’

Jonathan Stiles, managing director, Finland

‘The worst part was having to move heaps of scrap tyres in which poisoned rats had gone to die ...’ Photograph: GP Essex/Alamy

As a child in the 70s, I was hired, along with other children, by my father – a farmer – to clear wild oats from his wheat and barley crops, at a rate of 30p an hour. We were given heavy duty paper bags which we were expected to fill, and walked up and down the fields pulling up the random wild oats. It was tedious work in the hot sun and the barbs on the barley scratched our forearms. Other jobs included applying creosote to oak barge-board cladding on barns; the splashes of creosote burned our skin and our eyes. There was absolutely no thought of safety equipment in those days. But the worst part was having to move heaps of scrap tyres in which poisoned rats had gone to die. Rainwater ingress meant that as you flung each tyre you would inevitably become drenched in foul smelling, maggoty, semi-liquid gunk.

The lesson I learned: Try to get into a rhythm and work as fast as you possibly can.

‘I worked without cease’

Lizz Poulter, English teacher and translator, France

I worked in Boots one summer while at university. I was mostly on the till, or shelf-stacking, but once I was asked to work in the stockroom. My older, permanent colleagues spent the preceding days painting a picture of the hard work that would be required to get all the new stock put away within the day. They really built it up to be a superhuman task and, when the day arrived, I attacked it like a sporting challenge. I worked and worked without cease until suddenly it was finished – and it was only lunchtime. Then I felt guilty because I felt as if I had shown up the regular warehouse staff.

The lesson I learned: I now realise that life, and work, is a marathon, not a sprint.

‘I was given a crash course in looking busy’

Pete Bibby, retired, Sheffield

In the summer of 1969, I was a fitter’s mate at a Lancashire cotton mill, fulfilling the contractual obligation to supply a labourer to outside contractors who were converting doubling frames to spinning frames: picture 60x6ft metal monsters (the frames, not the fitters). After the first week, my mentors were off on holiday, and convinced that management would steal me and they’d never get me back. So, they gave me a crash course in looking busy. They taught me todisassemble the frames, then put them back together again, while swearing, looking puzzled and banging them with a hammer and spanner.

The lesson I learned: They taught me so well that not only did no one notice, but when they returned, the foreman told my mentors I was a hard worker who never stopped. I’ll be forever grateful for my summer with those guys, learning the useful skill of how to look busy while doing nothing. And lots more.


Guardian readers

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tell us: what lesson did you learn from your summer job?
We would like to hear from readers about their past and present experiences of summer work

Guardian community team

09, Jun, 2021 @9:48 AM

Steve McKevitt: Busy doing nothing

Every firm has a city slacker: they're always on the go but they never achieve anything. Steve McKevitt on the workers who understand that appearances are everything.

Steve McKevitt

13, May, 2006 @10:41 PM

Article image
‘I’ve seen a heron, deer, a hare …’ Guardian readers’ lockdown garden transformations
From wildlife ponds to private pubs with their very own toilets, here are some of your most successful pandemic projects

Guardian readers

30, Jun, 2021 @12:03 PM

Article image
Jealousy is a curse, turkeys are just big chickens … what Guardian readers learned from their mums
Ahead of Mother’s Day, we asked Guardian readers to tell us about the one piece of vital life advice their mum gave them

Guardian readers

12, Mar, 2021 @11:30 AM

Article image
What have I learned from work experience students? Much more than they learned from me | Zoe Williams
They got as much Diet Coke as they could drink and sometimes an ‘additional reporting’ credit. I gained an insight into a world of new perspectives, writes Guardian columnist Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

19, Jul, 2021 @5:12 PM

Article image
‘It’s the biggest open secret out there’: the double lives of white-collar workers with two jobs
Remote working has made it easier than ever for staff to moonlight. But how do they cope with clashing meetings and two bosses? And can the rewards be worth the lies?

Daisy Schofield

16, Nov, 2021 @10:00 AM

Graduates on their experience of the recession: 'You feel useless, bored of doing nothing'

Experiences of graduates Jen Attenborough and Ian White who have had to lower their expectations

11, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
A moment that changed me: patrolling my home city as a rookie cop showed me nothing is what it seems
My first night walking around the back streets made me feel as if someone had lifted Glasgow up like a giant rock to show me the unmentionables underneath

Karen Campbell

29, Jun, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘We sponsored an opera seat for our cat’: readers on commemorating their beloved pets
From a pottery paw print to a treasured tattoo, contributors share their ideas for keeping their pets’ memories alive

Guardian readers

20, Oct, 2021 @10:35 AM

Article image
‘I burst into tears and ran’: our worst summer jobs
Holiday work has been a rite of passage since the 50s. Here, writers recall their character-building stints shivering in an ice factory or sorting chunks of fat into buckets

Paul Mason, Morwenna Ferrier, Chitra Ramaswamy, Tim Dowling, Simon Hattenstone, Laura Barton

08, Jun, 2016 @5:14 PM