5 Skills You Can Learn From a Low-Wage Job

Last Updated Apr 10, 2011 3:24 PM EDT

You can't open a magazine these days without reading about McDonald's massive hiring spree. The restaurant chain points out that many of its franchisees and corporate staff started out behind the counter. So are low-wage, high-pressure jobs good training for management roles?

You bet, says Caitlin Kelly, author of the new book Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail, out this week from Portfolio. After losing her job at the New York Daily News, and tiring of the solitude of freelance life, Kelly took a part-time job at The North Face in a suburban mall. She shares the top five skills you can learn flipping burgers, folding shirts, or otherwise dealing with the oft-crazed public.

1. Sangfroid. "My favorite word - and my favorite quality among every set of colleagues I ever work with," Kelly says. "It means you do not freak out, become a drama queen or melt down when things get crazy. A low-wage high-pressure job is a perfect place to develop these skills if you don't already have them." When you have faced down a mob of Black Friday shoppers, a lost fax no longer seems quite so earth-shattering.

2. A sense of perspective. "It's not all about you! Really. Too many customers show up in appalling moods and say vicious things to low-wage workers. You learn quickly not to take a lot of people's bad moods personally," she says. There is a job to be done, and you do it.

3. Stamina. "You must be physically strong, energetic and agile to do many low-wage jobs, which involve a lot of motion and standing for 4-6 hours or more without a break," Kelly says. "If you're in lousy physical shape, you won't make it." You'll soon learn to take better care of yourself, staying hydrated and eating better in order to maintain your energy no matter what life throws at you.

4. Empathy. For your co-workers, managers and customers. "When you work in a customer-facing, low-wage job, one of the consistent pleasures is truly connecting with others, and finding out how their day or life is going," Kelly says. "It might be a whole lot rougher than yours."

5. A clearer sense of your strengths and weaknesses. "You may find you loathe sales - good to know! - or love merchandising clothing or working with food or drink or kids or old people," she says. "Even if you don't stay within that low-wage environment, it's a relatively risk-free way to discover things about yourself that might surprise you and lead you into wholly unexpected career or educational directions." Kelly, for instance, knew she loved to write. She didn't appreciate how much she loved talking to a wide variety of strangers all day long - another component of reporting. "Retail sales work really clarified that for me."

Readers, what have you learned from low-wage jobs?

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Photo courtesy flickr user, CMG0220