Entering the World of Work
By Connie Veates, Co-Executive Director & Chief Operating Officer, Trees Atlanta
This summer, Trees Atlanta was proud to launch its first job training program for high school students. Modeled after an initiative started in Indianapolis, the “Youth Tree Team” program provided a small hourly wage, free lunch, and professional development to students aged 15 to 19. Students learned how to take care of our urban forest by weeding and watering trees and plants along the Atlanta BeltLine and throughout the city. Each Friday they visited other nonprofits, companies, and universities to learn more about environmental issues and potential future green careers. For most of these students, it was their first paid job.
Most of us remember our first jobs. My first job in high school was as a cashier at Loehmann’s – a discount designer clothing store. I applied for the job because I wanted money to buy (what else) clothes. In retrospect, that job made a lot bigger contribution to my future than cute outfits.
First, it taught me how to compete. At that time there were more students looking for jobs than there were jobs available. I had to cope with multiple interviews and the humiliation of not getting my first attempt at employment at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Our Youth Tree Team applicants also learned to compete. There were three times as many candidates as there were positions, so students had to pass through three steps: a team-building, obstacle-type course, volunteering at one of our projects, and an interview. Those who made the cut were justifiably proud.
My first job also taught me how to be diplomatic. Sometimes customers were rude or complaining. I had to learn to overcome my own emotions and react calmly. Our Youth Tree Team members also learned to respond to the public, as they were often the face of Trees Atlanta while going about their outdoor work. People are often curious about the plants in the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum and will stop to ask questions. Our team learned how to answer them.
Another thing my first job taught me was humility. It didn’t matter that I made good grades and that my teachers liked me. My opinions weren’t especially interesting to my employers and I learned that I wasn’t “all that.” Our young employees had to learn to get along with students from other schools while also learning the skills required to do work they had never done before. And for the first time in many cases, they had to be accountable to a “boss.”
Lastly, my first job taught me the importance of saving. As I limped home exhausted each night, I realized that I wanted to preserve some of the cash that I made for the future. I didn’t want to frivolously spend money for which I had worked so hard – money earned is more valuable than money given. Our Youth Tree Team also learned frugality from bankers who taught them about the importance of saving for the future.
All of our Youth Tree Team employees successfully made it through the summer. They endured very hot days in the Atlanta sunshine taking care of the trees and plants that we hold so dear. As Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks a lot like work.” I hope that our young workers saw their future opportunities and that their first job changed their lives like my first job changed mine.