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Cooking fries? Cleaning hospitals? Executives reflect on their first job

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
  • Jan Fields, McDonald's USA president, says her first job was cooking fries
  • Other successful executives started as paper boys, hospital orderlies and factory workers
  • First jobs can teach teens, young adults about money management and shape careers
  • BLS: Economy has caused teen jobless rate to rise from June '08 to June '09

(CNN) -- Decades before becoming president of McDonald's USA, Jan Fields cooked French fries at one of the fast-food franchise's restaurants.

Her recollections of being a McDonald's crew worker in 1977 were hardly glamorous. Fields was a 22-year-old mother on a mission to earn money for college courses while her husband served in the military. She worked the night shift. Her feet killed her. Her blue polyester uniform stank of grease. She earned exactly $2.65 an hour.

It was her first job.

"There were a lot of days I wanted to quit," she said. "But I learned never quit over one thing, one situation, one person. Come back, and the second day gets better."

In summer, many eager teens, young workers and college interns are taking on the challenge of their first job. Similar to Fields' experience, the job or internship can be daunting, confusing and overwhelming, but if all goes alright, they will reap the rewards of hard work.

"The first job is when you learn the basics of how to be successful," said Kristen Eastlick, a senior researcher at First Jobs Institute, a nonprofit that works with teen employment. "It's the invisible curriculum. It's the things you might learn beyond academics. It's the how to work in a team. It's the how to show up to work on time. It's taking initiative, following directions, speaking up and learning to be accountable for your activities."

Despite this gloomy economy, it may be encouraging to know that before some high-powered executives and political figures found success and fame, they, too, started somewhere in a much lower-level position.

Billionaire Warren Buffett, who made his fortune off savvy investments, began his career as a paper boy for The Washington Post.

For tech-giant Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple, he asked for an internship at Hewlett-Packard at 12. And he got it.

Douglas McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart International, landed his first gig at 17, unloading trucks for the company. On his first day of work, McMillon crashed his car into his boss' vehicle.

But summer jobs for young people are becoming harder to find. Reports show employment numbers are dismal, particularly for teenagers who are facing the worst job market since the Great Depression. In July 2009, 4.4 million youth were unemployed, up by nearly 1 million from July 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Employment for teens and young workers can be an important part of learning how to invest and spend money, said Dennis Hogan, a professor of sociology at Brown University in Rhode Island.

"It's important for kids to have some independence," Hogan says. "For some kids from families without much money, that means saving for college or a car."

Steve Bartlett, former mayor of Dallas, Texas, and CEO of The Financial Services Roundtable, said he took his first job at 16 to earn money to help his family. In his home state of Texas, Bartlett worked as a hospital orderly who helped care for patients who were often sick or in pain. Part of his job was cleaning up after them.

"None of the tasks were bad for me," he said. "They could be dirty, messy, smelly and all."

He proudly took the pay of $1.25 an hour, but it wasn't just about the money. Bartlett said he was excited to take on more responsibility as a teenager. The job taught him the importance of building a solid relationship with his customers.

First jobs can also help young people shape their occupational future and teach them the tricky lesson of balancing work with school, said Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson, a sociology professor at Washington State University. The result of juggling multiple responsibilities at a young age, she said, was that they were more likely to earn higher salaries later in their careers.

There was a time when Alice Elliott, CEO of the Elliott Group, a consulting company for the hospitality and food industry, wasn't the leader of the pack. Rather she was just another 16-year-old New York factory worker.

Elliott's father pushed her to get the job, which paid about $5 an hour. She was required to carefully track the inventory and give proper credit to the workers who finished the products. The work conditions were stuffy, she said. No air conditioning was available in the dead heat of summer. But Elliott learned to think optimistically and cling to the best parts of her job.

"I learned there is dignity to working, and it's a sense of pride that I could make a contribution," she said. "I was needed and people depended on me."

Larry D. Thompson is the senior vice president of government affairs at PepsiCo Inc., one of the biggest beverage companies in the world.

But before his time at PepsiCo and before he became an attorney, he was a 23-year-old labor relations manager at a Ford plant in Michigan. Fresh out of his college master's degree program, he took an entry level job at an inner city plant where he developed managerial skills while dealing with warehouse workers and union representatives.

He recalled one uncomfortable argument when a union representative screamed at him. The furious, red-faced union worker had came to Thompson's office and claimed Thompson, the rookie worker, had broken an agreement. The incident taught Thompson how to successfully navigate a heated work dispute.

"This has served me well forever," he said. "It was like getting a Ph.D. in life."

Jan Fields lives with her husband today in Chicago, Illinois. At McDonald's USA, she oversees 14,000 restaurant locations -- a drastic contrast from her job as a fry cook. She is grateful that she spent time cooking hamburgers, cleaning kitchens and working the cash register because it gave her empathy for those handling those jobs today. She says she can better relate to her employees.

One morning last week, she was in a meeting with a few 20-something interns at McDonald's. She shared her advice about never giving up. And for those who might be unhappy at their jobs, she told them the future offers endless possibilities.

"What you enter as is probably not what you ultimately achieve, so learn the core of the business," she advised them. "The more prepared you are, the more likely you will move up."