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Work: A Great American Motivator

Posted: October 30, 2017

Kevin Dillon with daughter, Reilly Dillon
Reilly Dillon with her dad, Kevin Dillon (after a hard day’s work)

I have a thing about work, about jobs.

I’ve had a bunch of them in my life: Houston Chronicle paper boy; Los Tios restaurant bus boy; Kroger sacker (where I also got my first promotion to stocker, a.k.a., “The Night Stocker”); oil field rig-up yard specialist (don’t recall feeling that “special” 100 percent outdoors in 100 percent Houston summer humidity…’nough said). Then I went white collar: accounts payable clerk; Austin Community College accounting instructor; hung out my own shingle as a self-employed accounting tutor (at 10 bucks an hour!); Ernst & Young auditor, analyst, consultant; Pennzoil Quaker State accountant; UTHealth auditor, CFO, COO, C3PO…

At the risk of sounding like my late, great father – the second T. Kevin Dillon – all the platitudes our parents and grandparents said about work are, let’s face it, pretty much true. It’s good for you, it provides perspective, an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, it’s “real.” And, it’s often the first – and, sometimes the last – fully independent, arm’s length assessment of our “value,” at least in the Great American commercial sense.

My two greatest takeaways from that rig-up yard experience were: (1) the inventor of air-conditioning should be canonized and (2) I know I don’t want to do that for the rest of my life. My parents couldn’t have dreamed up a better incentive to get me to hit the books, once back at college. After driving a forklift during a daily 110-degree heat index, the chore of studying for accounting finals in UT Austin’s air-conditioned Perry-Castañeda Library seemed like Spring Break.

I’ve witnessed a similar tale unfold with my 19-year-old daughter, Reilly, an Aggie sophomore, who texted me before the summer that she was interviewing for anthropology. Both MBA/CPA parents cried, thinking she’d changed her major to the but-how-will-you-earn-a-living? liberal arts, only to be admonished – by text – “Women’s clothing store, guys. Chill.” Ah. The hi-jinx of auto-correct: Anthropologie.

Her summer job proved to be a great work experience for Reilly. Lots of coaching; cash register training, uh, I mean, “digital sales solution” (that her accountant-Dad never mastered); incentives for showing up on time (“Would you like to close again tonight, Ms. Dillon?”); and sophisticated communications technology (cool head-sets) for immediate troop redeployment within the store. She also learned that hanging up the clothes that thoughtless customers left strewn on the floor wasn’t as rewarding as she’d thought. (And maybe she felt some newfound empathy for her mom who might have waded knee-deep in Reilly’s fallen garments over the years).

Lots of opportunities for “adult-ing” as Reilly would say.

Now, I did point out to Reilly during her summer grind that waaay back in the 20th century, “Dad” worked 56 hours a week for National Supply (now National Oilwell Varco) and thus 16 hours of time-and-a-half overtime. Some of that was spent hanging from a crane, 40 feet in the air, swinging a 12-pound hammer at various pins and flanges, helping to assemble drilling equipment. Sometimes my hammer actually hit its target. (Much like my skill with the cash register).

Reilly, on the other hand, typically worked a brisk, oh, more or less 25 hours a week, and seemed wholly fulfilled with more “less” than “more.” Somehow, she squeezed a trip to Grand Cayman into her summer work schedule. No such summer work respites existed for me that summer of the Game of Cranes. “Here it comes, Rei,” younger brother Liam helpfully interjected, “‘Dad walked to work six days a week, in the snow, uphill – both ways.’”

But even with her lesser workload, I still saw many of the same salutary benefits of a work experience shining through. The world (or at least this small, retail sub-section of it) valued her skills at $10 per hour. Her employers expected her to show up on time, to look “presentable” (as my sainted mother would have put it), and to be nice to customers and fellow employees – some of whom were, quite simply, not very nice.

By summer’s end, I think she was looking forward to returning to College Station. And, I think she was even more motivated to make good grades.

So, for many young people, the workplace is a first, sustained encounter with an indifferent universe, a “what can you do for me?” world where their abilities and charms are objectively – and often ruthlessly – assessed.

And, finding a job when one is barely driving age is daunting. What experience can you offer when “experience” is what you’re after? And for many of America’s youth, “getting a job” is a crucial necessity to help support their family, seldom viewed through the lens of character-building or résumé enrichment.

Work can be a Dickensian make-or-break experience. I was demoted from Kroger (night) stocker, back to sacker (I simply wasn’t meant to work a graveyard shift; a.k.a., I broke a lot of jars of mayonnaise). I worked every Christmas and Spring Break during college for National Supply, “graduating” to corporate office accounting clerk – less money, but more AC. Oh, and co-ed. The money I earned there paid for UT’s McCombs School of Business, a degree I took quite seriously, perhaps in great part, because I was paying for all of it.

Work revealed a truth about myself: I was a slightly above-average high school student, a very good college student, and an even better MBA student.

Work can be an amazing thing. In many ways, it’s better now than ever before. It’s safer, fairer. Work-life balance is no longer considered just a Silicon Valley concept. Gender equality (though still a progressive verb) is approaching its most respectful balance yet. But are jobs as plentiful? One of my greatest hopes, always, is for economic growth, a country that generates jobs – at all levels – with progressive amounts of responsibility to reward those who do their jobs, improve their skills and strive for something better for themselves, their families and their employers.

I believe UTHealth is just such a place, and I believe we are doing better.

So, I hope you’ll join me in this conversation over the next few months – What job did you hold that changed your beliefs about yourself? What did you learn on the job that no school could have taught you? What did work satisfy in you or leave you wanting?

Let’s continue to talk about work. Because it matters.