Even CEOs have to start somewhere.
Some of America’s top executives made humbling debuts as teenagers in the workplace. They scrubbed toilets, cut tobacco, worked at McDonald’s.
Such work is becoming less common . Today’s youths are more likely to enroll in summer school, do volunteer work or pursue extracurricular activities, especially to improve their prospects for college admission.
At the same time, teens who do want summer work find that adults increasingly occupy the low-skill jobs that once went to younger workers. Overall, the percentage of Americans ages 16-19 who work in July has fallen from 57 percent in 1986 to 36 percent last year.
At a time when a smaller proportion of teens are working summer jobs, some of today’s corporate chief executives reminisced to The Associated Press about what they did and what they learned in their earliest jobs.
Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison worked three summers as a phone operator. At first, her competitive instincts led her to try to field as many calls as possible.
“I learned an important lesson about human behavior and the importance of customer service,” she says.
“Although I wanted to move quickly, there were some callers who required more of my time, and I had to slow down my approach in order to resolve their questions.”
The job could be physically exhausting: She had to reroute calls by plugging a cord into a switchboard, a task that eventually was taken over by automation.
“It was also the first time I had earned my own money,” she says. “So I learned the value of a dollar.”
Sonic CEO Cliff Hudson said he delivered newspapers from ages 11 to 13 but stopped after being hit by a car. He then worked on a construction site for his father’s company.
Tasked with cleaning bathrooms, Hudson was unenthusiastic. His superintendent decided to motivate him by changing how he was compensated. Instead of being paid hourly, he would receive a set amount each time he cleaned something — a urinal or a sink.
“Quite suddenly, I could see the connection between my output and my compensation, and it really got me going,” Hudson says.
Hudson concedes that if his father hadn’t owned the company, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place — or, if he had, he would have lost it after his lackluster start.
Trump Hotels CEO Eric Danziger worked in McDonald’s for a few summers. Before that, in the late 1960s, he sold “Black Cat” firecrackers until the police shut him down. He also spent a summer hawking sunglasses from fold-up tables outside his home in San Jose, California.
He sold hundreds of pairs and made good money — $1,000, he estimates, which translated into about $7,000 today after adjusting for inflation. The sunglasses were discards from a manufacturer where his mother worked as an office manager.
“They couldn’t sell them at the stores because they had blemishes in them,” says Danziger, 63. “It was zero cost, and 100 percent (profit) margin.”
Danziger started working year-round at 17, skipping college for a job as a bellman at a San Francisco hotel.
He put both his children to work at 16. Not having a summer job, he says, leaves a hole in a teenager’s education.
“It’s learning the value of money, but it’s also learning the responsibility of people you are working with,” says Danziger, who took over the oversight of hotels for President Donald Trump’s company in 2015. “You have a schedule; people count on you.”
Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich says he started his own bagel-and-lox delivery service at 16, using his bicycle to make deliveries.
Shaich learned that business is harder than he had thought. He loved the actual selling, but getting up early to make deliveries took time to adjust to. He’s kept a copy of the advertisement he placed in the local newspaper for the service.
Kroger’s CEO Rodney McMullen got started working on the family farm in Williamstown, Kentucky.
“Every summer in my youth consisted of performing different tasks on the farm,” he says.
He recalls being paid 6 cents for each stick of tobacco he cut. He started at Kroger at 17 while attending the University of Kentucky.
“I worked nights and picked up as many shifts as I could to earn extra money to help pay my way through college,” he says.
When he was 15, Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol got his first summer job as a bag boy and range attendant at a Texas golf course. He carried golf bags, cleaned clubs and drove a caged cart that picked up balls on the driving range.
“It combined something I was passionate about — golf, and a fun environment with great people — criteria I think are important at any point in your career.”
Early on, Niccol recognized something: He was in the people business, not the golf business.
“Those relationships with the golfers, management and the staff showed me that regardless of what you’re doing or what your role is, there’s a fundamental quality in everything that will prepare you for your next step.”
Jeffrey Mezger, CEO of Los Angeles-based builder KB Home, worked three summers as a laborer for a masonry contractor, mixing and shoveling mortar, loading bricks, pushing a wheelbarrow.
It was all his father’s idea.
“He thought hard manual labor would keep me in shape for football and would keep me out of trouble,” Mezger says. “There was no question in his mind whether I would be working every summer while in high school and college.”
He earned $6.50 an hour, about twice the minimum wage at the time.
Still, “I learned that I did not want to do something like that the rest of my life,” he says. “The older guys working there were worn out.”
AP Business Writer Alex Veiga in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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