Before scoring my Work Learn position as a Student Life Writer in my last year as a UBC student, I worked as a server and barista at a small cafe for 2 years.
Over the time I spent there, I heard it described many times by people in my life as “not a real job”. While I understand where those people were coming from, I was always sort of offended by the implication. If this wasn’t a “real job”, then what was the point of all of the aching feet, frustrating interactions with rude customers, and burns from the steam wand? If my job wasn’t real, then all of my time and energy had no value.
The thing is that almost everyone I know has had one of these jobs at some point, and many people do make their careers in these fields. People everywhere work as servers, baristas, or sales associates. If you ask me, none of that time is wasted.
Learning about yourself
The problem is that we tend to be too focused on the concrete skills you learn in a job. From this perspective, serving coffee is just that—serving coffee. But what about the more implicit lessons you might be learning?
In my time as a barista, I came to understand a lot about myself as an employee. I found that I really enjoyed interacting with the public (even the grumpy, pre-caffeine public) and that I can be conscientious and forthcoming when I want to be.
On the flip side, I also found out what I need from a work environment. Since the cafe was small, the only people working were often just my boss and me. I often felt stressed out by his direct scrutiny. When I started searching for a new job, I made sure to look for more independent work environments with more social connections among the team.
That said, there are definitely more specific skills you can gain from this type of work. You know how everybody’s resume says they’re a detail-oriented, quick-learning team player? Well, now you can actually have proof of those attributes!
Being able to keep calm while being pulled in a million different directions is essential for being successful in any career, and nothing teaches you to multitask, prioritize, and maintain grace under pressure like customer service. If I can make a half-caf, triple-shot, no-foam soy mocha while keeping an eye on the panini press and assuring a customer that the salmon on the bagel sandwich is, in fact, organic, then I can handle anything.
Another skill that’s always useful is working well with others. No matter what job you end up doing, there’s no way to avoid other people. Learning to communicate respectfully and effectively can solve almost any problem under the sun. Customer service jobs are a great way to work on this, since you’re always interacting with the public and actively trying to make them happy.
Making connections and building rapport
One thing that amazed me about being in the service industry was how much turnover there is.
I was the cafe’s longest running employee by a long shot. Over the time I worked there, they went through 11 other baristas, which is a lot, considering there were only 2 to 3 of us employed at a time.
The fact that I even had that job for as long as I did is probably the most valuable part of my having worked there. Loyalty is key, and potential future employers will notice this on your resume.
In addition to that, I now have a really great and reliable employment reference, not to mention that one of my former coworkers became one of my closest friends. You’re not just passing time to get a paycheque; if you’re doing it right, you’re also building a network.
So no, your part-time job will probably not be a career gamechanger. It might not be your biggest dream, but it is a step down the path that will lead you there. Don’t let others discount the time and energy you’ve put into learning how to be an effective employee at any level.
Every experience is useful, whether you realize it at the time or not. It’s all a matter of how you look at it.