I take the train to work and, every summer, the cars get a little more occupied. It’s summer intern season and the college kids flock to the city in their best business dress to seek that golden resume builder. For some, this is their first internship experience. For others, their 2nd or even 3rd. Entry-level jobs require at least two, nowadays. At least that’s what the experts tell me.
I was a Secondary Education major and my field of study didn’t require an internship. While all of my college friends were Business majors and heading to their corporate internships, I spent my college summers working for Coca-Cola Bottling in Speedway, Indiana, driving trucks and delivering cola. All of the teachers spent their summers teaching drivers education, running summer camps, or doing various odd jobs like painting and landscaping. I look back and wonder what things I learned about those summers.
Cue the Springsteen. Well, I’m an Indiana kid, so cue the Mellencamp.
Every summer, between my freshman and second senior years, I put on my pinstripe uniform and headed to my job. Before I knew what any of this meant, I had to have my Commercial Drivers License, or CDL. I would be driving bay trucks and hauling hazardous materials. No, not Diet Coke, but CO2. I had no business driving those things, but I had a blast. I learned about supply chain, inventory management, working in a union environment, and the tolls of physical labor on the human body.
The work was pretty intense, most of the time. I worked in the Special Events department and would manage festivals and events throughout the city. They ranged from the Indianapolis 500 to the local art fair. We handled the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick as the world was introduced to John Daly. The county fairs were big-ticket items and I got my fill of fried tenderloin sandwiches. It’s an Indiana thing. So good.
Being the summer help, I got my fair share of hazing and heckling from the full-timers. It was all in fun until they found out I got to work the weekend overtime shift. Then I learned about the grievance process in a union environment.
Overtime was a precious commodity and before it could be given to a part-timer like me, the full-time staff had to be given the opportunity to take the work. My boss hated that process and wanted me to do the work because he knew I knew what I was doing. But rules were rules. Most declined when they found out what the work really entailed.
I learned to drive vehicles I never thought I would. Bay trucks, vans, event trailers, and pick-up trucks. I could park a trailer into any spot you wouldn’t think it could fit. Mater was right about the value of mirrors when driving backward. There was nothing better than the days I got assigned to the new Ford F-250 Diesel. I may have exceeded the speed limit on Highway 74 a few times in that thing.
My co-workers, the guys who did this job for a living, were in their 30s. Looking back, they seemed like they were 20 years older. This work took a toll on the body. We would deliver pre-mix canisters of product to these events. Each weighed about 40 pounds and we would deliver, one in each hand, about 200 of these a day. Up stairs, down stairs, across fields and parking lots, under tables, or in club houses. My hands were one big callous and were permanently dirty all summer no matter how much Lava soap I used.
There were no wellness plans. Hell, I think it was a requirement to smoke at least 2 packs per day and drink no less than 5 Cokes. My wellness plan consisted of working 10-12 hours a day, drinking 6 Cokes, eating fast food, then playing 2 hours of basketball at my high school open gym. And then going out with my high school buddies.
Workplace injuries were common. I loved the physical part of it, but I was a 19-year-old in great shape. Had I continued this role for another 20 years, I might have a different story. I learned about disability claims, return-to-work policies, and an accident-free environment.
I cherish the work I did for those summers. I learned so much about work ethic, the value of physical labor, and many other aspects about Human Resources that I didn’t realize at the time. My goal was to be a high school teacher and a coach. I had no clue I’d be an HR guy. This summer gig was just paying for my social and spending money in college.
Had I chosen a major like business or economics, I would have never had the experiences at Coca-Cola. There’s the adage, “A summer job is an incentive for a college education.” I didn’t view my summer job like this. I valued the experiences, relationships with my co-workers, and the chance to do something totally different from what I was pursuing in college.
After all, I had the rest of my life to work. Why would I want to get started so soon?