Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Guest blog by Jean Lorrah

Do you have kids in college? Do you have them working in the family business? If you have a family business, of course you do--it only makes financial sense, and who can teach them a good work ethic better than you can? Why in the world would you fire them when they start college?

Let me tell you a cautionary tale:

When I was in college, there was nothing I wanted more than to get a summer job in the city where I went to college, work in air-conditioned comfort, and spend evenings and weekends with my friends who were doing the same thing. However, my parents, who were paying my tuition, insisted that I come home every summer and work in the family grocery store, which was open 12 hours a day, 364 days a year.

And I do mean WORK. I had to cart pop bottles down into the cellar and bring up full bottles and canned goods from storage there. I had to stock shelves, wait on customers, sweep the floor, clean the counters, and reconcile the cash register at the end of the day. The last two summers I also had to take inventory and do the ordering, as my mother thought such experience would look good on my resume. All this in an unventilated box with no air conditioning but a ceiling fan.

Because I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school, let alone college, even I thought my yearning to have more comfortable working conditions and work more appropriate to my future plans was simple selfishness. The only argument I could offer was if my parents would allow me to get an office job, I would hand over every penny of my paycheck for them to put in my college fund. The answer was a consistent, resounding NO

The family business was a little mom-and-pop grocery store, run by my grandparents, my parents, and me. I was an only child. No outside help was ever hired. Having since dealt with hired employees, I now understand why my family didn't want not only to pay someone outside the family, but to try to make that person do the actual backbreaking work of running an old-fashioned neighborhood grocery, and then do the endless government paperwork connected with having an "employee."

But you know what? Had they but known, although they probably would not have hired anyone else (they ran the place without me all the time I was away at college), I'm sure they would have let me take a job with some business that did not have the family name on it.

Here is what we DIDN'T KNOW (the sort of thing school counselors never seem to know and ought to): work experience in the family business counts as NO WORK EXPERIENCE AT ALL. I graduated with honors and COULD NOT GET A JOB. My academic recommendations were just fine, but I had NO recommendations from acceptable employers. What my family said was dismissed as meaningless.

The assumption when only the family business is listed as work experience is this: the kid wastes the summer lolling in the family pool (we hardly had a yard, let alone a pool), while Dad puts him or her on the payroll. My experience is probably far closer to that of most kids who work in the family business, but prospective employers will not allow themselves to believe it.

Way back when I graduated, prospective employers instantly knew I had worked for the family because the family name was on the grocery store. I couldn't fool anyone. Today, if you own a franchise or a business with a brand name rather than family name, and think a prospective employer won't find out who owns it, think again: you will be investigated and not only will your son or daughter have no work experience, but a reputation as a liar as well.

What could I have done? IF I HAD KNOWN, I could have not taken overloads every semester, and gotten a part-time job near college, something my parents could not have prevented. But I didn't know, so I helped them sabotage me as they encouraged me to take every hour my tuition would allow (make college a bargain, six courses for the price of five, and both B.A. and M.A. in only one extra semester). The point is, I didn't know--and if you were never in this situation yourself, you may not know, either.

What should you do? Fire your kids! While they are in college they need to work someplace other than the family business. They may find at first that the only jobs they can get are flipping burgers or stocking shelves, but it will still be work experience for their NEXT application. As they proceed through college, they should keep trying to find jobs closer to their future plans--even take an unpaid internship if it is in their field. Encourage them to get to know the professors in their major. Often they will know of available jobs that will look good on a resume.

Yes, I eventually got work, but it was a long haul, with two temporary office jobs before I finally got the teaching job I was qualified for--in a reform school where no one in their right mind wanted to teach. As I was as penned in as the students, and room and board were provided, I saved up money to go for my PhD so I could teach college, and from then on things got better. But I would not have had to walk that rocky road for three difficult years, and neither will your children if you just make sure they get some acceptable work experience on their resumes before they graduate.

Read Jean's weekly blog here.

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