Many people look back on their first jobs with a mixture of longing and nostalgia. After all, your first job is where you learned basic values such as responsibility, hard work, and respecting your boss. But many of these entry-level jobs also carry a stigma: employees who work in movie theaters, fast food restaurants, and convenience stores are oftentimes perceived as menial laborers performing trivial duties. And while entry-level jobs may not be perceived as demanding as certain jobs such as doctors or lawyers, it’s important to consider the value that beginning jobs have as catalysts for learning valuable skills necessary for personal and professional growth.
In the case of Michael Kwang Huh, 50, a self-employed insurance broker, the lessons gleaned from his first working experience provided insights into future life-direction and proper work habits.
At 20 years-old, Huh began his professional career as a salesman for El Dorado Apparel, a wholesale clothing company in the downtown Los Angeles garment district. “At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life,” said Huh. “As far as education goes, I didn’t know if I wanted to go further, so until I got to find out, I wanted to work for someone.” At the time, Huh had not enrolled in college, so he used his time at El Dorado to gain experience in the working world and consider his future plans.
Huh’s primary duty entailed showing potential retailers merchandise in a showroom filled with women’s apparel. If the retailer decided to purchase some merchandise, Huh would then pack the apparel in boxes and facilitate the transaction. While performing these duties, Huh learned the value of maintaining positive relations with his buyers.
Huh said, ”I learned about good customer service. I also began to enjoy working with people on a personal level. When you give good service, you also gain something in return.”
Although Huh mentions that he was more or less satisfied with his job, he also says that he felt a longing for something more out of his life. He knew that he wouldn’t stay at El Dorado forever, and began to believe that without a college education, he would not feel he could attain a fulfilling career.
“When you work for someone, sometimes you feel less satisfaction with your job. The more I started thinking about going back to school, the more I realized I could pursue the kind of job that I would like.”
The dilemma Huh experienced at El Dorado points to an interesting dynamic at work for those of immigrant descent, where first jobs are usually considered stepping stones for further career advancement. Financial self-sufficiency, combined with societal recognition, are key factors that drive children of immigrants to pursue jobs with higher income and prestige.
“I think [societal pressure to succeed] definitely was a big factor because as I said I didn’t want to work at this for the rest of my life; it felt like I could do better than that. The job itself wasn’t that bad.”
Family pressure also influenced Huh’s feelings about his first job. Though his parents did not directly pressure him, his two older brothers persuaded Huh that getting a college degree would enable him to find a more satisfying job.
These social stigmas, stemming from societal and familial pressure, contribute to the perception of entry-level jobs as just that – jobs that enable someone to gain entry into the working world so that a certain set of experiences and skills can be acquired for further advancement. The job is not seen as an end in itself, but rather as a low-paying, oftentimes denigrating form of employment that does not positively contribute to society.
Nonetheless, Huh sees the value in entry-level jobs as integral in fostering a good work ethic, regardless of the position they occupy on the social spectrum. “People look down on all of those little jobs, but it’s part of the experience. You learn something from those jobs, so you use the skills that you gained at those jobs in the future. I’m still using those skills gained at previous jobs in my current career.”
Currently, Huh owns an insurance brokerage that facilitates appointments between commercial businesses and insurance companies. After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in mathematics, Huh worked in various fields of work, such as owning a women’s apparel store, cleaning pools, and working for an insurance company (prior to operating his own brokerage). Today, Huh feels fulfilled in his career and hopes to continue to grow his business. But he never forgets the experiences that led up to his success.
“I’m fortunate to be here. If it weren’t for the lessons I learned in my previous jobs, I wouldn’t be where I’m at.”