Fewer teens are working, and that’s too bad. What I learned at the soda-bottling plant.
For much of my childhood, I assumed I was going to play for the New York Mets when I grew up. Reality bit hard when I reached high school and was cut from the varsity baseball team.
As delusional as I might have been, I was perceptive enough to recognize that if I couldn’t make the Guilderland High School varsity, my prospects for signing with the Mets were dim.
Lacking a career Plan B, I took a summer job at a small soda-bottling plant in downtown Albany. My sole qualification for the position was that my father knew the plant’s owner from his bridge game.
I thought back to that soda plant last week, when the Pew Research Center put out a report titled “the fading of the teen summer job.” Back in the summer of 1978, the report found, 58% of 16- to 19-year-olds were employed. By last year, the teen summer employment rate had dropped to 32%.
The report offered a variety of possible explanations for the trend: fewer entry-level positions available; shorter summer breaks; more students enrolled in summer classes; and more teens taking unpaid internships or doing community service work.
Whatever the reasons, the decline of what Pew called the “Great American Summer Job” is a shame. My soda-plant job was grimy, unglamorous and low paying — and it taught me more about life and work than anything else I could have done during those three months.
To begin with, I learned about the monotony of repetitive work. One of my duties involved inspecting returnable bottles as they emerged from a washer and passed under a fluorescent light before they were refilled. My job was to grab any that were cracked or contaminated.
It was at once the most mindless job at the plant and the most important: A cigarette butt or a dead rodent at the bottom of a bottle could have turned into a multimillion dollar lawsuit. Despite this awesome responsibility, after a few minutes of watching the bottles go by, my mind would begin to wander. The rats from Willard could have passed under my nose and I probably wouldn’t have noticed. When I heard recently that airport screeners missed fake bombs and other contraband, I could relate.
As the summer went on, I learned to admire the full-time, year-round employees at the plant, most of them African-American. They worked hard every day, kept the assembly line running and could fix any piece of machinery, including my balky Pontiac.
I learned about the sharper practices of product marketing. Our plant made both Diet Rite cola and sugar-free RC. All I would do was change the caps and the labels. The syrup came out of the same tank, but the grocery shelf prices often differed.
I learned about the importance of health and safety regulations. The plant owner lived in fear of the words “OSHA inspection.” When he thought the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was about to appear, we went into a frenzy of cleanup that kept the place in reasonably sanitary condition.
I learned about taking responsibility. One day, I shut off the valve on the syrup tank improperly and was mortified to see hundreds of bottles filling with carbonated water and just a tint of coloring. It’s a wonder I wasn’t fired on the spot.
Most of all, I learned that there are basically two types of jobs in life. There’s the kind of job where you take a shower before you go to work. And there’s the kind where you take a shower after you get home from work.
Neither is any nobler than the other. But after finishing most days covered with sweat and grime and syrup, I resolved to pursue the shower-before track.
As the 2014-15 school year finishes, here’s some advice. If it’s motivation and real-world preparation you’re after, the teen tours and specialty camps can wait. Get a summer job. The grungier the better, particularly for boys with delusions of athletic grandeur.
Bill Sternberg is the editor of the Editorial Page.