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Five Things to Learn While Flipping Burgers

Mary Anne Hahn

September 05, 2008

Wouldn’t it be great to get a part-time job or paying internship that directly relates to what you want to do with your life? But what if you’re not sure what you want to do with your life yet? What if you have to “settle” for a job at your nearby fast-food joint, department store or supermarket? Then consider yourself lucky. Jobs in the service industries can provide you with experiences and skills that you can use in any career you choose. What retail jobs have in common is that they involve customer service. And learning how to help customers—answering their questions, solving their problems or providing them with prompt and courteous service—means developing skills that can help you succeed in just about any career area, from law and medicine to computer programming and engineering. Unless you plan to live and work in total isolation, success in any job you choose will depend on how well you learn to work and deal with people. So what can you learn from serving burgers, running a cash register or answering the office phone?

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You learn how to treat people professionally. “Professionalism” isn’t something you get to practice in the classroom every day. But on the job, it’s required. When you work with customers either face-to-face or on the telephone, you gain experience in greeting and talking to people in a professional, courteous manner. You get to practice using phrases and a tone of voice that may not be necessary in your day-to-day life now, but will help you in your career later. You learn how to handle “difficult” people. When dealing with customers in a store or restaurant, you’ll find that most people are friendly and pleasant. But some people just aren’t easy to please. They may come off as demanding, impatient, angry or even rude. What you learn in customer service jobs is that their emotions have nothing to do with you. Many times people are faced with stresses at home or at their own jobs that cause them to behave badly in public. Learning how to cope with these people in your part-time job without taking their behavior personally helps you to deal with difficult bosses, co-workers and customers.

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You learn how to work as part of a team. Sure, you can learn this skill playing a team sport in school. The difference in working as part of a team on a job, however, is that you aren’t doing it to win anything—you do it simply because it’s expected of you. This means noticing and helping out a swamped or tired co-worker or coming into work early or staying a bit longer if your “team” needs you. Experience as a team player will get you noticed by many employers. You learn how to step up during busy times. Imagine what it’s like working in a fast-food restaurant when a bus of hungry teenagers pulls up unannounced. Or cashiering in a supermarket the day before Thanksgiving. Or running a cash register or gift wrap counter in a popular department store during the holiday rush. At times like these, you need all of your energy to work faster and smarter while keeping your poise and professionalism. If you can demonstrate through your part-time job experience how you’ve handled stressful job situations and busy, fast-paced periods, employers will admire (and hire) you. You get to meet a lot of interesting people. At school, you probably tend to hang with friends who have tastes and interests similar to yours. In customer service jobs, you meet or work with people of all ages, personalities and backgrounds. You can learn a lot from these people, whether it’s about careers and colleges you’ve never thought about, cool places to go when you’re not working or how others view the world or handle tough situations.

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As you can see, landing a customer service job means so much more than earning a paycheck. You get to develop skills, gain work experience and meet all sorts of people to boot. Helping customers can help your future in ways you’ve never imagined.

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