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The lifelong impact of our first job

By Tom Baum - Posted on 9 October 2014

Reflecting on his own experiences, Prof Tom Baum, head of the Business School’s Human Resource Management department, discusses the impact first-time employment can have on shaping future attitudes towards work…

I remember my first ‘proper’ summer job well – working in a local authority-run beach catering facility in Bournemouth for 2/6d an hour (now, that shows my age!!). If it rained (which it frequently does by the seaside), we were sent home without pay. Still, it was fun, I made some good friends and learnt a few tricks about skiving while remaining in the supervisor’s good books. And the next summer, I got promotion to ‘head chef’ in another café which deep fried everything, so I also gained a bit of health and safety knowledge – without any training, mind you! I am not alone in learning about the world of work through exposure to the hospitality industry, a sector that has a presence in virtually every community worldwide and, thus, offers work opportunities at a local level in a way that is really only paralled in retail. In many countries, the hospitality economy relies heavily on a vibrant and motivated workforce to deliver services under intense pressure, 24/7/365, to increasingly demanding customers. In doing so, hospitality draws widely on a cadre of employees in their teens and twenties, many experiencing their first ever job (like my own situation), so much so that it has been described by Danish researchers, Hjalager & Andersen (2001), as an industry highly dependent on “the youngest segments of the available labour”.

Youth’s current role in hospitality is illustrated in an Australian context where about 50% of high school children are in paid work at any one time and around 75% of these students will work before completing school. Approximately 60% of 15-19 years olds are employed in services sectors that included accommodation, cafes, restaurants and take-away food services and the fast food sector, in particular, is recognised as being highly dependent on youth, with the mean age of crew in Australia estimated to be 17.4 years. There is little reason to think that the situation differs significantly here in Scotland or in other similar countries.

Although these early work experiences are often transitory, positive first job experiences have the potential to shape attitudes about the nature of work; workplace relationships with authority (supervisors and managers), peers, organisations; and, possibly, future career choices within a specific sector or in the wider world of work. Likewise, poor experiences are likely to shape perceptions of work which can be carried forward into future exposure to the world of employment, as young people ‘learn to labour’. However, research into this area is fragmented and provides limited evidence beyond the short timeframe of young people’s early reactions to the workplace. Furthermore, much of this work has concentrated on school-leavers and graduates entering full-time employment for the first time. There is a clear gap in consideration of the role of workplace experiences of the kind I described earlier, my own initiation into work in a beach café, in shaping future workforce identity and attitudes to employment.

Working with colleagues David Solnet and Richard Robinson of the University of Queensland’s Business School, we are undertaking a series of research studies aimed to lift the lid on the first job experiences in hospitality of young people, initially focusing on the Australian context but with the aspiration to roll out the study in a number of different countries and contexts. We are currently collecting empirical evidence pertaining to the first job experience of young people in order to formulate critical questions and to engage in a discourse which explores whether these first job experiences are important in the formation of youth’s long-term perceptions of work generally and the extent to which their work identities may be shaped by this initial workplace experience in the future.

The focus of our research is very much on the early experiences of work of today’s young people. At the same time, obtaining a sense of if and how early exposure to hospitality, similar to my own, has impacted on the working lives of more mature employees, whether currently in the sector or working in entirely different fields, is also high on our agenda. It would be great to hear from anyone prepared to talk about their early hospitality industry experience, 5, 10, 20 or more years ago.

In a sense, I feel that I have come full circle in my interest in youth employment in hospitality, especially where this workplace is the first exposure of teenagers to the formal world of work. I was there myself, oh umpteen years ago and am now looking to share and compare my experiences then with those of others in the same boat or who are about to embark on a similar journey as today’s first jobbers in hospitality.

Do you look back on your first job fondly or would you rather forget the experience?  How do you feel it has impacted your attitude to work?  



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