Seven lessons I learnt from my seven part-time jobs
From gaining skills and knowledge to making new connections, there are many things to learn from working part-time while studying.
Coming from a less well-to-do family, our finances have always been tight. While we never had to starve or go without necessities, my family lived on a shoestring budget and rarely spent money on leisure.
Growing up in that kind of environment made me determined to be financially independent and not live off my parents, even from a young age.
I started working part-time when I graduated from secondary school at 16 as a banquet server and dishwasher. After that I became a barista at a well-known coffee shop, a retail assistant at a Japan-based bookstore and an attractions officer at a local tourism attraction.
When COVID-19 shut down most of the tourism industry, I found a cashier job with a grocery store, and a packing job with a warehouse.
Seven jobs in four years does sound like too much, but I’m glad I managed to have a taste of what it’s like working in different industries, and learning various lessons from each job.
Here are my seven takeaways from my seven part-time jobs.
1. Good time management
During my first year of polytechnic, I worked four to five days a week, except for when examination or presentation periods came around.
As a student, having a flexible working schedule is necessary for such periods. I was lucky enough to be working for understanding and considerate employers, as they allowed me to work once or twice a week.
As it can get tiring to work and study at the same time, I find it helps to make a weekly schedule on a calendar and stick to it. I write down the timings and dates where I have work, deadlines, tests, exams and presentations, and from there, I figure out a way to fit in study and break times into my days.
Making schedules helps you make sure your dates for your part-time job and school do not coincide. It’s also important to have a daily period of time for rest to prevent burn-out.
2. Managing burn-out
Working four to five days a week during my first year of polytechnic caused me to wake up early and sleep late many days.
When I wasn’t working, I was studying: during my break times at work, on the bus and MRT rides to school, work or home.
In my second year of polytechnic, COVID-19 struck. Not many shifts were available so I could only work only on weekdays. As I had my weekends free, I decided to volunteer with my school and my volunteering organisation.
I gave myself little to no rest during the first two years of my polytechnic. I experienced burn-out, and grew tired and frustrated. I increased my caffeine intake, attended fewer lectures to work more and studied later into the night.
Eventually, I felt that I simply couldn’t study, read or even move out of bed anymore.
As I pushed myself to achieve good grades and financial independence, I neglected my mental health. I realised that I had to make several drastic changes to my lifestyle to make me feel less pressured – taking a break from working completely, cutting out caffeine to sleep more, and volunteering only when I felt rested.
3. Being financially independent
Working in various part-time jobs taught me to be frugal, make my money last till the next paycheck, and even manage to save some.
I learnt to divide my money into three separate uses: bills, daily necessities and savings. When I first started saving, I didn’t have much left over after spending on the first two.
However, I was determined to have money that I can fall back on for rainy days, and so I saved $10 monthly. When I had a better job, I saved $50 monthly and now can sometimes put aside up to $100. This makes me financially secure, and have less worries.
It can get hard to keep my hands off my savings money, especially when it has accumulated over the years. But my efforts in not using my savings paid off when I decided to take a break from working. I could comfortably rest without worrying about my finances, which was key in helping me get over my burn-out.
4. Dealing with unpleasant customers/guests
As a barista at a well-known coffee shop located in a well-to-do neighbourhood, I had my fair share of demanding customers.
Some insisted they were regular customers and blamed me for not memorising their drink orders (though I didn’t recall seeing them before), others simply felt having a “new face” making their drink was not what they wanted.
I found that being polite and firm helps when handling a customer’s food or drinks. Handing them a gift voucher also goes a long way in resolving the issue fast when it comes to unruly customers.
My most unpleasant encounter was with a guest during an annual Christmas event while working as an attractions officer. The guest pushed and screamed at me for not allowing her to get a time slot in front of the bustling crowds.
I stood there, stunned and unable to explain to her that she had to queue for the time slot, until my supervisor came over and pulled me behind him.
Having experienced such foul confrontations at a young age helped me gain an edge. I can manage workplace or group project-related conflicts better, without getting affected by them.
It’s good to remember that as a part-time worker, you don’t have to deal with more than what you’re paid to do – it’s better to ask for help from someone who’s more suited to manage the situation.
5. Not putting up with unkind supervisors
Supervisors often have a huge impact on employee morale, as they have the most direct influence on the workers they manage. I faced many types of supervisors throughout my four years of working, including ill-natured ones.
When I worked as a banquet server, I had many managers from different hotels. The worst ones were demanding and at times even abusive, hurling insults as and when they felt like it.
The outlet I was working at during my stint as a barista had a high turnover rate due to their part-timers constantly leaving the place. I soon found out that the full-timers and long-term part-timers who worked there put in little effort to train their newcomers. As a result, I made many mistakes and received little guidance from my co-workers.
With both jobs, I often felt anxious and wary of my working environment. I was afraid to make any mistakes, and with every slip, I felt I had to overcompensate for it somehow.
After six months at the cafe, I realised that there was nothing I could do to fix the situation and started looking for a new job. I learnt an important lesson in which no amount of money was worth my mental health being down the drain.
6. Empathy for people working in the service industry
Having worked in the service industry myself, I have the highest respect for people working in jobs considered to be low level or having minimum wage.
I wore a uniform for all of my jobs, earned as low as $6.52 and as high as $13 hourly, and felt invisible to the public except for when they required assistance. Many times I thought to myself: “What I’m doing is not worth what I’m getting paid.”
Now, I make sure to say please and thank you to the auntie who prepares my meal, the cashier who hands me my items in a bag, the concierge who guides me to my destination and every other service worker who helps me in the slightest bit.
When a restaurant is busy and my food comes late, I try to understand that their servers and cooks are trying their best. When the queue at my grocery store takes longer than usual, I try to be extra pleasant to the cashier.
I believe being kind and considerate goes a long way for the people whose jobs most likely involve them being on their feet all day to serve us.
7. The joy of making new connections
Another benefit I enjoyed immensely from working part-time is making new and valuable connections.
I worked at a local tourism spot for a year, the longest period of time I’d stayed at a part-time job. It was there that I met some of my greatest friends, people that I went through the ups and downs of working student life with.
I made friends with co-workers and supervisors of various ages, from the fresh-faced 16-year-olds to the 45-year-old veterans. We tirelessly worked without complaints, shouted words of encouragement to each other during peak hours, and went out for after-work suppers.
Many of the part-timers were students from tertiary schools, and we all understood each other’s plight well. We would host study sessions during our break times and outside of work. A few university students even helped me prepare for my presentation once.
It felt like I had a community of friends-turned-family and thinking about it now, a year after leaving the job, still gives me a warm feeling.
Four years on, I could not be happier with how my experience of working seven part-time jobs has shaped the person I am today. Working with harsh supervisors and attending to demanding customers taught me to set boundaries and remain firm.
Standing up for long hours in luxurious air-conditioned ballrooms, behind a counter and in Singapore’s humid climate taught me endurance and patience better than any school examination did.
I started working out of necessity and purely for the money. Little did my 16-year-old self realise that starting the hustle life early would teach me so many valuable life lessons I definitely could not have learnt at home or in school.