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
Despite 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Kara from Bravelygo on earning less than $20k a year
- Tonya from Budget and the Beach on living on less than $31k in LA for seven years
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?