Learning from a low wage job

Learnings from a low wage job – making £1.50 an hour

Who knew I could have learned so much, and be so shaped by one poorly paid job? Hindsight is a marvelous concept; I struggle to appreciate things and be grateful at the time, however the passage of time always brings me insight after periods of self reflection. Although I earn six figures now, it hasn’t always been this way. Let me take you back and share my learnings from a low wage job.

Wanting to work

Being very self motivated and keen to get out in the world, I have wanted to get a job for as long as I can remember. My parents were happy to provide jobs that needed doing, and paid me for tasks such as doing the ironing, cleaning and painting the fence. However they would not let me get a job out of the home before I left school. I wasn’t too happy with this decision, but given we lived somewhere with limited public transport I reluctantly had to accept it.

My first job

Hence once I finally finished school at 17, I was able to look for a job for the summer before starting university. This was an introduction to the real world, my initial foray into the world of paid work. I was ready to trade my time for money for the first time. With my blank academic CV, after many applications, and a few interviews, I took the only job I was offered, waiting tables in a large seaside cafe complex.

My first wage

What became evident right away, was that I was only getting paid £1.50 an hour. Which even in 1998 was not a lot of money. And I had the cost of commuting there, around a 15 minute drive. Looking back it seems such a pitiful amount of money, but at the time I happily accepted it as my first job. I had no experience, and this was my first foray into the world or work. I hoped I would enjoy the work, and come out with a few learnings from a low wage job. It’s important to also acknowledge my privilege here. At 17 my parents wanted me to live at home and paid for my board and lodgings. My wage was for uni costs, books, travel to uni as well as clothing, personal items and fun money.

Low Pay Structures

Pay was determined by age, and on your birthday you got a pay rise. Yet I observed the older people were not working harder, nor doing a higher quality of work or even doing more complex work. I saw first hand that high volume employers like this cafe deliberately keep wages low. They employ a lot of younger people so they can pay them less. I quickly learned and reluctantly accepted this was a deliberate business model, and there was no performance related pay here. Or was there?

Working for tips

The saving grace of this low wage position was tips. The poor wages were very generously topped up with tips from customers, and most days I made more in tips than I did in wages. I always banked my wages, and lived off my tips. Many of them may also have been frittered away in a nearby pub. Anyway, this was a revelation to me, and my first real introduction to the etiquette of tipping. My customer service game was improved as I learned how each individual customer wanted to be treated. For my American friends, tipping is not compulsory in the UK, it’s only necessary when the service is good to round up or give something like 10%. Tips were always dependant on how much you clicked with customers, so the aim was to establish rapport and manage their expectations if it was busy.

Learning new skills

WaitressDespite the pittance of an income, I loved this opportunity to get out into the world, and earn my own money. I learned a lot, and very different things than I learned in my academic studies. Amusingly the skills needed to wait tables still come in useful today. Being able to carry and serve from a tray on one hand is very helpful in cafeteria style eating places, and an easy way to wow friends!

Skills such as building relationships and small talk came into their own, as well as memory and maths skills in taking orders and making change. There really were a lot of practical learnings from a low wage job. I learned all about coffee and industrial coffee machines, and boy they are a pain to dismantle and clean. And I learned to use industrial slicers and how to make food look more appetising. On the commerce side, I learned how to work a til, how to cash up and what stats the business cared about and analysed. Then there was the ice-cream. Making industrial quantities of sundaes reduces in wow factor as time goes on, but I still maintain making a great banana split is an awesome life skill.

Keeping customers happy

It didn’t take me long to realise there were key ways to maximise tips, simply keeping customers happy. Being driven by earning tips, meant we took the time to learn exactly what customers wanted. This cafe had a lot of regular customers, who all had their own quirks and habits. Some wanted to talk and hear all about your life and nights out, others wanted their coffee served quickly. By tailoring our service to exactly what they wanted, we were able to maximise tips.

Juggling Priorities

As this was a seaside cafe, business was very seasonal and basically weather dependant. This led to lots of quiet periods, alternated with periods with people queuing for tables. I learned that even when business was quiet, there was lots of prep work you could do. And it made life much easier if you did these items, when you had the time. And when it was busy, it could be hectic. When all the tables were full, everything was at capacity and even the dishwasher couldn’t keep up. I learned a lot about prioritising, and learning the most efficient way to do everything. And just how to keep going even though you have been on your feet for hours, and are desperate for a break that you aren’t allowed. True grit comes through.

The Camaraderie

But what kept me there through the really hard times and the drudgery? Simply, I made some amazing friends working there. I firmly believe working through hard times makes you bond more, and we did work through some really bad times. Some of the duties were frankly grim, people can make so much mess and waiting staff just have to grin, bear it and clean it all away. All while projecting happiness to the world.

Yet the divide

There was sadly a clear divide between the students, who were living with parents and working to support themselves through their studies, and the permanent staff, who were waiting tables as their only source of income. We noticed this at the time, but didn’t really do anything about it. Students tended to go out and socialise more after shifts, whereas the permanent staff went home. And I have to admit, we did all secretly think if we didn’t do well at uni, this could be our permanent situation. Which was quite scary to us at that time.

The grass is not always greener

And I also realised the reality; my parents paid me much more to work at home, and the working conditions were better. I got paid much more than £1.50 an hour doing odd jobs at home. They had been cotton-wooling me which I didn’t like. I’m fiercely independent and believe in true equality of opportunity, but my parents had tried to delay my entry to the real world. So it seems this was a double edged sword – they aimed to help me, by giving me unfair advantages. I was not grateful for this, and still don’t think it was the right decision.

Random sexism

I always like to add feminist commentary to my posts, and this is no exception. You wouldn’t believe it now, but women were given a number, whereas men got their initials! Women were always put on the rota by their number, yet men by their name. I can laugh at it looking back on it now, and can see the rationale as there were initially not many men. But boy, it really was a case of call me by my number for females.

Getting the most out of it

While I don’t mind doing my time and hard work doesn’t phase me, I also learned to latch on to and appreciate the odd advantage. We got visited by minor and less minor celebrities which was always fun. And my personal favourite was be-friending the local nightclub owner, which was very lucrative. From then onwards I could always get in free, and jump the queue in his clubs. Result! And I need to appreciate things more in the current day, as I outline in my appreciation post.


Key Learnings from a low wage job

It is only when looking back, I can see I learnt a lot over and above how to make a mean cappuccino. Here are my more deeper learnings from a low wage job.

  • Life is not Fair

You need to accept this, and work with what you can. Any energy you spend raging against the system, is energy you can’t use to work around it. Working for £1.50 an hour is hard, but you can do it and learn how to increase your income.

  • Tailor service to customers

Waiting tables is a great insight into humanity, and what makes people tick. You can quickly learn how to increase your tips, and how to keep customers happy and coming back time after time. The biggest learning is people are different, and all want different things. Heck, some people even want different things at different times.

  • Hard work can be gratifying

After a 10 hour day on your foot waiting tables and slinging coffee and ice creams, you are simply exhausted. But you can take pleasure in earning your own money and conquering the tiredness with mental toughness, and be grateful you are able to work and succeed through a hard day.

  • People can help you through

When times get tough, lean on other people. Waiting tables is the most friendly workplace I have been in, where most people are always there to help you. Competition is low, and I loved the collaborative spirit. People were always happy to help, and work together to get through the difficult periods.

My reflections overall

In summary, waiting tables was enjoyable and fun at the time. Practical and personal learnings from a low wage job really helped developed my character into what it is nowadays and shaped my values. Grit, determination and hard work served me well, and learning to meet customers needs helped me to succeed both making good tips waiting tables and beyond in professional jobs. By having this experience, and working this job for two years around uni, I learned what it is like to work in low paying jobs. But truth be told, I’m grateful I work in a professional job now, and don’t have to go back to waiting tables, unless I consciously choose to.

I’d like to leave you with some other low wage stories bloggers have been sharing lately.

Over to you

  • What was your first job?
  • What did you learn from your first job?
  • Have you ever waited tables?
  • Any other good low pay articles?

29 comments on “Learnings from a low wage job – making £1.50 an hour

  1. My dad worked at a flea market on the side to make extra money. They were always tight with money, so when I wanted to take equestrian lessons when I was 12, he got me a job helping with the kiddie rides on Saturdays, so that I could pay for my weekly riding lessons on Sundays. It felt like I was making a ton of money at the time. I had enough for my lesson, set aside some to save for equipment I needed and get some candy.

    Now that I think back, it was my first lesson in frugality, saving, being financially goal driven and luxury (candy). It was tiring but fun working with kids and gave me a sense of independence.

    1. Hi Whymances, that is awesome, paying for your riding lessons by working on the rides. It’s amazing how money seems so much more to us when we were young than it does nowadays. I agree working for your own money does gives you a great big slice of independence.

  2. Never waited tables, but I worked in a pet store as my first “full time” job out of college after my internship ended. I am a big believer that everyone should work a low wage job at least once in their lifetime (and when they are young and just starting out), because it gives you a much healthier respect for the hard work that is put in for very little income.

    1. I agree, working a low income high effort job does give you so much perspective and respect for those who that is still their reality. I would be great if everyone took that opportunity, but sadly some people get to skip that rung of life.

  3. My second job was working in a supermarket 20 hours a week on top of my full time job. Did this for 7 months whilst a pregnant teenager. Really didn’t pay well when it was basic wage and I got taxed on all of it because it was a 2nd job. Sundays were my only day off and I really appreciated them.

    Learnt a lot about dealing with customers although I always got frustrated with customers shopping past closing time. I didn’t get paid from the minute the shop closed but they weren’t aware/didn’t care that I was basically working for nothing from that point on.

    I think it’s good to learn the art of grafting at an early age. Builds up your stamina for when you need to work extra hard to see a job through and ensures you can graft when you have to – something employers want and expect these days.

  4. My first job was as a tutor in college. I earned $10 an hour, which was pretty good. But I didn’t work much – maybe 4-6 hours per week. Still, that was extra money in my pocket, and I enjoyed working as a tutor and helping others.

    My first full-time job out of college paid $25k per year. This was in 2000, so that salary would be equivalent to about $36k in 2018. Not terrible, but was definitely living paycheck to paycheck.

    That being said, there were a lot of non-monetary benefits of joining the work force instead of starting medical school right out of college, a lot of which you alluded to in your post. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I mowed laws and that came out to about $25 an hour (but not 8 hours of work or daily work). I had no idea how good I had it. I became a lifeguard in my later teens and college. That was not smart. The lawn business was worth much more and I should have kept it going and scaled back on lifeguarding.

    I learned scheduling, responsibility, customer service, billing, and pride in your own product.

  6. I was on under minimum wage helping out in my parents’ takeaway business from my mid teens up to mid-20s on Saturday nights. My dad’s generally the quiet type but in the kitchen, he was like Gordon Ramsey! It was hard work – like your waiting on tables, I was on my feet for hours at a time, had to move (and act) quickly, deal with queues of customers waiting for their food and had to maintain good mental arithmetic as the till we had was archaic! If the shop was full, we had no breaks but after the tea time rush, I used to enjoy a brief quiet period so I could read (and eat!) And then it would be the pub closing time rush with the inebriated customers piling in…

    It’s a fact that if I hadn’t gone to uni, this would have been likely the ‘career’ for me and it wasn’t what I wanted.

    I think my biggest lesson from this work was learning how to remain diplomatic with the occasional unhappy customers, but I also never look down upon people who work in any fast food jobs (even with the corporations) because it’s hard work.

    1. I was going to say Weenie, when we were young, the minimum wage didn’t exist. I love that your parents positioned it as helping out rather than a “job”. It does sound like really hard work, especially if your Dad goes all Gordon Ramsey on you! And I suppose you got a good chance to try out the job before going to uni, and make a conscious decision on your future. I can only imagine how hard fast food work is, and with the added pressure of being cheery to even the difficult drunk customers, it sounds hard.

  7. I’m so sorry I missed this post when you first published it! I have been hanging onto a half-written piece forever about some of my first jobs. This might be the kick in the pants I need to publish it. I am so glad my parents encouraged me to start working when I turned 14 (and could get a work permit!). My husband and I have both already started talking about how we hope to do the same for our son. Of course, we want him to do well in school, but there’s a lot to be learned about life from these kinds of (bad first) jobs!

    1. No worries Penny, lovely to have your thoughts now. So yes, I think you should get that post out there, always cool to hear people’s backstories.

      And starting at 14 sounds cool, getting into that working mindset early. And I think that’s the right thing doing the same for your son too.

  8. My parents were overprotected, and we have problem with transport. I remember interviewing for a part-time during summer and they offered me real pay for two months of office work ($100 a day) but my parents turned it down. So even though there wasn’t enough money, I never worked till I graduate and get the adult kind of job.

    1. Hi Lyn, thanks for visiting and commenting – I have to say I am also not a fan of parents that don’t let their kids work. It stops them having real-life experiences to build the work ethic and perseverance, as especially working lower paid jobs is hard. Moreover, although there are a lot of uni students etc in these roles, for some it is their real job as an adult.

  9. Great reflective post. I liked your positive spin and the lessons you learnt from the experience.

    You say that you’re done waiting tables but who knows, you could be like The Escape Artist and do it again for the chance to attend an event at no cost!

  10. I enjoyed the post, but I’m not sure I understood what you meant about men getting initial and women a number. Was that in a queue?

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for visiting and commenting. Sorry I didn’t explain it clearly, there was a rota with shifts, then staff were slotted into the shifts. Men were written in by their initials, women by a number.

  11. The main thing I learned from my first job in a restaurant is: tip even if you get takeout! I worked at a takeout counter in a Chinese restaurant (ugh, so stereotypical), and I remember how happy we were if someone tipped us a dollar. The main dining room always got tips, but not us takout folks! I think these kind of jobs help me remember now to always be nice to those working in service positions.

    1. Hi Jess – yes, I agree learning the hard way how little people are paid really hits home how important tipping is – and luckily here is not as bad as the US, which frankly scares me.

  12. Thanks for the shout out! I think every job can teach us valuable lessons even when it might be the worst experience ever. Sometimes there are good paying jobs that suck the life out of you, and sometimes there are bad paying jobs that make you want to wake up every morning. Waiting tables in my younger years gave me a much bigger appreciation for service staff!

    1. Hi Tonya, that’s so kind of you to stop by and comment – I agree that you can learn something from every job, even if you don’t realise it at the time. And I think waiting tables should be a right of passage for everyone.

What do you think?