Jan. 3, 2021
For four years during my undergraduate study, while my friends slept in on weekends and enjoyed fun trips or events, I woke up at 7 am every Saturday and Sunday and spent both days working in the school cafeteria. At the time, I didn't see the experience as anything beyond a paycheck to help me cover my tuition. Years later -- and after a summer at an amusement park, two semesters at the university bookstore and two years as a waitress -- I realize that the work ethic I developed and the skills I gained through these experiences are what make me successful in my chosen career. The roles above challenged and exhausted me, but they also taught me valuable skills I use to this day.
It's easy to dismiss experiences in food service and retail as unimportant, or as something to do before finding “a real job." If you have limited or no experience, however, such roles can teach you skills you can apply throughout the rest of your professional life, regardless of what career you choose. Most important, employers often view such experiences positively. Two years ago, a guest speaker my institution hosted emphasized how food or retail stints stood out to him when reviewing a candidate's resume. He had started in such roles and respected others with similar backgrounds.
Considering their value, I wasn't surprised that quite a few of my colleagues regard positions in the food and retail industries as having taught them skills they use to this day. Below, I've listed four such transferable skills.
“Four of the top five skills employers seek in new hires include oral and written communication, listening skills and presentation skills," according to a key finding highlighted in the Corporate Recruiters Survey Report 2017. As a person for whom English is a second language, polishing my communication skills was even more vital. The time spent as an amusement park employee and a waitress helped me do just that. Beyond the ability to communicate clearly, working the register at the Happy Frier in Cedar Point and waitressing strengthened my ability to engage in small talk, which I use as I build connections in my field and as I help students learn how to network.
Communication skills are especially important when delivering bad news or handling customer problems, and that's something my colleague Maria Krull, an internship and employment specialist, learned as a team member at Target and as an usher at a concert venue. “When an item was out of stock, I had to inform customers and offer a solution; when someone at a concert was being uncooperative, I had to politely ask them to leave," says Krull. “These jobs taught me how to have difficult conversations in a calm, professional manner and how to always be solution-oriented."
Similarly, as a waitress, hostess and cashier, Jessica Antonen “learned how to talk to customers, resolve customer conflicts and develop appropriate communication with supervisors and peers." She relies on the same skills as a solutions team member with the career development office at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.
In high school and college, another colleague, Ali Godfrey, held jobs as a barista at a gourmet coffee shop and a waitress at a casual restaurant. At Carey, Godfrey is responsible for building partnerships with employers in the marketing (CPG, retail, hospitality) and real estate industries, and her background in customer service helps her foster professional relationships. “I learned to maintain a high level of professional courtesy – remembering regulars' names and orders, apologizing for a kitchen error or addressing customer needs," Godfrey said. “My professional roles since have all included relationship management with internal and external stakeholders as well as daily interfacing with clients and anticipating their needs."
Through her experience in retail, Krull gained insights about working with customers from the moment they walked in. She responded to inquiries when they needed help, maintained a clean and inviting environment and ensured a seamless checkout. “All of these tasks needed to be executed with a smile and in a timely manner," says Krull. In her current role, she relies on those skills to “ensure that the Johns Hopkins brand is represented with all students, employers and colleagues I interact with. I work to help as many people as possible while maintaining a professional demeanor."
Roles in the service industry often catapult you into chaotic and high-stress environments where you need to think on your feet and manage multiple responsibilities. The job of a waitress was one such role for Godfrey. During the rush lunch or dinner hours, she seated customers, took orders and relayed them to kitchen staff, ensured orders were correct and served them, refilled drinks, cleared tables, answered phones, assisted with takeout orders, managed deliveries, processed payments and much more. “This has prepared me to work in a fast-paced environment, prioritize tasks and quickly switch gears when working on multiple projects at a time," adds Godfrey. Multitasking is thus closely related to time management -- a valuable skill in any role.
Krull's experience in retail was no less challenging. “I had to stock shelves, answer customer questions and assist as a cashier when we had high volume of customers in line," she says. The opportunity encouraged initiative as she remained vigilant to what needed to be done and took action before an issue arose. “In my professional life now, I can juggle different projects, maintain student relationships and effectively communicate using email and instant messenger, all in a day's work," adds Krull.
Teamwork is another item identified by the Corporate Recruiters Survey as a top-ten skill employers look for in new hires. “Working in the service industry requires teamwork and coordination in a high-stress environment, as well as holding each other accountable to ensure you are providing a great experience as a team," points out Godfrey. “I have never held a role that did not require collaboration, trust and cooperation between employees." Even as an individual contributor in a company, it's important to know when to ask for help from your team, and when to offer it to others so projects run efficiently.
Opportunities to collaborate could also strengthen your mentoring and leadership qualities. Those were the biggest takeaways for Antonen. “I learned how to take direction and learn from peers, how to mentor and support new as well as seasoned coworkers," she says. “In addition, my roles in the service industry helped me learn when to step up, make decisions and give directions to teammates, as well as how to be accountable and transparent while also staying open to constructive feedback."
Although roles in food service and retail can help you develop the above skills, you still want to pair them with on-campus, volunteer and internship experiences on your resume. Furthermore, you may want to work with your career center to polish the stories you share during interviews to highlight the skills you've learned. The experience won't speak for itself; employers want to hear what you learned in your own words -- so how you tell the story is important.