Preface: When people ask about the worst job I ever had, I always get a little nostalgic. I think all of us have a few times where experiences “burn” into our memories more than usual, and that was the case for me around age 16. I write this not just because I think it’s a great story, but because it was one of those galvanizing experiences that changed the projection of my life, especially in regards to work and finances.
Raking Mud At A Contaminated Dirt Processing Plant
Two months after I turned 16 years old my dad made a shrewd business move, and dragged me along for the ride. See, my dad had been working for years in the landfill gas industry, extracting methane gas from closed down landfills and piping it to a nearby business for a fuel source. But recently (through a great story in itself) he had purchased one of the landfill gas “vacuum systems” that he had built and maintained for years.
The great part of this arrangement was that the gas system already had a customer right next door, so my dad would be making a great income from the gas that was being sent to this company. Then the company mentioned to my dad that they were thinking about starting a night shift because they had a big project coming up, but they were having trouble finding a plant operator who could be in charge of everything. My dad immediately realized that the more the plant was running, the more income he’d receive from sold gas. If he could make $14/hour as an operator PLUS keep the plant running, he’d be sitting pretty.
That brings us back to little ol’ me. I was a senior in high school at the time but had already finished most of my required coursework, and being home-schooled gave us some flexibility as far as scheduling went. I was also a computer nerd without a clue what I wanted to do with my life or career. Up to this point I’d had several summer jobs (cutting grass for friends and neighbors, helping my grandfather wire up gas stations, etc) but nothing you’d call full-time, and those jobs were very intermittent. I might make $50 in a week on average.
My dad thought that this would be a great learning experience for me, so we talked about it and I took a job working the night shift with him. 12 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week, at $7.50/hour. I. WAS. RICH! Or so I thought. Everything was new and exciting to me, and I didn’t really think about the fact that the plant was 2 hours from home (so my dad and I rented a trailer to live in Monday-Saturday), or that we would be working outside in the dead of winter at night in the foothills of the mountains… you know, trifling details like that. All I could think of was what I’d buy once I started making bank.
Work Is Hard
The way the plant worked was thus: Front-end loaders would drop huge buckets of smelly, contaminated mud into a hopper at one end of the facility, which would make its way through a maze of conveyor belts to smaller and smaller sifters, and eventually into a huge burner that would blast all the dirt and get rid of the contaminates. The dirt had arrived by truck from a nearby power plant, and the entire project was just to get the dirt clean.
My job was simple: keep the mud that would sling off the conveyor belts from building up underneath them and causing poor performance or damage. I was given a flat rake (looked like a 18-inch-wide garden hoe) and would walk from belt to belt, raking mud.
It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. For those of you who perform jobs like this regularly, you have both my respect and my pity.
I was eager to please the guys I was working for and with, especially because I could tell there was some doubt about my ability and willingness to work hard. Those next few months went by in a blur of working, eating, showering, sleeping, eating, and repeating. I was often tired and sore, especially my feet from walking around in steel-toe boots for 12 hours. Cleaning the dust out of my nose and ears every day got very old. Sometimes I was bored, especially as the monotony of the routine set in.
It was also very lonely being away from friends and family back home for so long, with no one but a few coworkers to talk to. Even when the snow would send us home early it was usually around 9pm at night. My dad and I would go to Barnes and Noble, read a few books until they closed, then head back to the trailer, to hang out for the next 8 hours until it was time to hit the hay and get ready for the next shift. Even an introvert like me gets tired of that kind of life.
I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything! Not one bit of it. I grew up a lot in those 3 months, and learned a ton about myself. I kept a memento from that job, a steel ball around the size of a tennis ball, to remind myself that I would try never to have to depend on a job like that for my income. My dad showed a lot of wisdom during that time, counseling me when I asked for it but allowing me to experience the raw edge of life at a young age. He certainly knew what he was doing.
I made the decision at the end of that project that I would try to develop my love (and knowledge) of computers, and pursue something in that arena. The very next month I bought my first car for $2,000 and started a small computer repair business in the town near my parents’ house. I learned how to market myself, how to invoice, and how to treat customers with respect. But my work ethic was already there, along with my dedication and drive.
I was fueled by my invaluable experience raking mud at a contaminated dirt processing plant.
This post originally appeared at FIJourney.com, a blog discussing various financial independence topics.