Lessons from life on the bottom rung

By GREGORY ZELLER // What I did with my summer vacation: If you’re an American teenager, there’s a good chance it wasn’t “earn a paycheck.”

The percentage of U.S. teens with summer jobs has been in steady decline for years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which says six of 10 U.S. high school and college students had summer jobs this season – down from eight of 10 in 1989.

Overall, there were 20.3 million unemployed Americans in July between the ages of 16 and 24, according to the bureau, roughly equal to the population of Florida. Just as jarring are numbers provided by Measure of America, a project of the national nonprofit Social Science Research Council: There are 5.5 million Americans between 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school, enough “disconnected youth” to eclipse the populations of 29 states.

The numbers reflect more than a lazy generation. Automation reduces worker demand and many adults still reeling from the Great Recession hold two or three jobs, so fewer retail and assistant positions trickle down. The recession also upgraded the value and availability of the unpaid internship, which gives employers no-cost production and removes youngsters from traditional payrolls.

Whatever stops them, youths without summer jobs lose more than a modest paycheck: Networking, building career-specific skills, learning workplace dynamics, even having a general sense of purpose are all important developmental steps for their future professional selves.

Long Island executives, entrepreneurs and innovators of all stripes recall their first summer jobs as enjoyable and frustrating, as great starts and unfortunate mistakes, as often memorable, always educational experiences that still inform the people they are today.

William Biamonte, Sulfcrete // First summer job: chef’s assistant

SulfCrete CEO Bill Biamonte: Cementing a new way to move massive amounts of data.

There’s little connection between chopping vegetables in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant and manufacturing an environmentally friendly concrete alternative. But if one lesson spans those disparate pursuits, according to William Biamonte, it’s this: “You don’t need to be smarter than everybody, just work harder than everybody.”

That mindset, learned in the kitchen of La Villa D’Oro in Rockville Centre in 1976, drives Biamonte’s Brookhaven National Lab spinoff today. His boss back at that restaurant was a chef “who must have been raised in Italy when Mussolini was in power,” the Sulfcrete CEO said, describing a merciless taskmaster who imparted a lifelong understanding of hustle.

“He would give me a list of seven things to do and then be like, ‘You’re not done yet?’” the former chef’s assistant said. “Then he’d give me three more things to do.

“I was always behind the eight ball,” Biamonte added. “It taught me the importance of working hard to get in front of the eight ball and stay there.”

Brad Darrohn, Fishbat and LI Brew Bus // First summer job: door-to-door salesman

Two things compelled Brad Darrohn, now a media specialist at Bohemia online marketing firm Fishbat and co-creator of the microbrew-touring LI Brew Bus, to seek his first summer job.

“I like money,” Darrohn said. “And we didn’t have much.”

So in 1995, at age 14, Darrohn got busy. Employers like McDonald’s and Burger King turned him away because of his age, “but I kept going,” he said, and before long he was selling Police Athletic League coupon booklets door-to-door.

darrohnSeveral lessons stick with him two decades later. The first involves self-reliance: “If I wanted nice clothes to wear to school,” Darrohn noted, “I had to work.”

The second reinforces persistence: Most people weren’t interested in the PAL booklets and several were rude about it, but the boy quickly learned he “couldn’t be scared to ask for the sale.”

And then there was the lesson about the law of averages.

“I figured if I went to 20 houses in an afternoon and said the same thing – the same introduction, the same story – I’d definitely sell five books,” he said. “Now I look at everything like that. Some brewers are interested in the bus, some aren’t. Some will give discounts, some won’t.

“All I have to do is be persistent,” Darrohn added. “The law of averages will take effect.”

Diane Fabel, Center for Biotechnology // First summer job: grocery clerk

As a cashier at Fire Island’s Seaview Market in 1974, Diane Fabel had slightly less responsibility than she has as director of a 30-year-old biotechnology research facility on the Stony Brook University campus and as de facto administrator of the Long Island Bioscience Hub, which unites SBU, BNL and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

But she did have some responsibilities. Her first summer job taught her about handling money; she came to understand commitment, with lots of weekend and holiday work; she certainly learned the customer is always right, even snooty Manhattanites who don’t like to wait in line on vacation.

Diane Fabel, director of operations at the Center for Biotechnology: $8.4 million to commercialize bio-med startups.

“It wasn’t my customer to lose, it was the store’s customer,” Fabel said. “It was my responsibility to maintain that customer, no matter what they said.”

And the job did have its perks, including exposure to a cross-section of professionals and ethnicities she wouldn’t otherwise meet, as well as a “sense of accountability” that developed over time.

But if she had it to do over again, Fabel might be “more strategic” about her summer-job choices. Any job can build character and pay long-term dividends – Fabel knew kids who worked in burger joints and came out understanding inventory control – but only a few can “help you in life,” a lesson she plans to share with her kids, who are approaching work age.

“I’d rather they focus on their academics instead of diverting their attention to a job that won’t give them the most beneficial exposure and experience,” Fabel said. “I’d rather they focus on summer jobs that contribute to their career development. My daughter happens to be interested in world history and political science. I’d love to see her do an internship with a legislator.”

Peter Kaplan, PricewaterhouseCoopers // First summer job: moving company assistant

kaplanFor years spanning high school and college, Peter Kaplan spent summers working for Hauppauge’s Liberty Shipping, an offshoot of Allied Moving Co. The money was good – “One of the better-paying jobs at the time for someone my age,” Kaplan noted – and the work kept him moving, literally: Corporate and residential relocations took him as far afield as Florida.

Kaplan learned a lot about dealing with people, a service-industry mindset that sticks with him 35 years later in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Melville office.

“I had to understand people’s needs and expectations,” he said. “I had to follow their directions. That equates directly to what I do today: dealing with clients, understanding their needs, making sure the quality of what I deliver meets their expectations.”

While he recalls his assistant-mover days fondly – particularly lessons about staying motivated through long and difficult workdays – Kaplan also wonders if his own kids can do better with their summer-job choices. It appears his daughter might have, choosing a path with more long-term potential than short-term gain.

Now starting her senior year of high school, Kaplan’s daughter has spent the last several summers volunteering at Smithtown’s nonprofit Sweetbriar Nature Center. She hopes to be a veterinarian someday, Kaplan noted, and her work at Sweetbriar – while unpaid – could help her get there.

“She’s thinking about ways to differentiate herself when she goes on college interviews,” Kaplan said. “I made money, but did my experiences with a moving company differentiate me on college interviews? Probably not – and today’s environment is much more competitive.”

Rich Lavone, Long Island Business Council // First summer job: Stock boy at Great Eastern Mills

RMBheadshotA born multitasker, Rich Lavone recalls several “first jobs” circa 1975 – running the housewares department at Elmont box store Great Eastern Mills, stocking shelves at the Franklin Square Bohack’s (a chain of Maspeth-based supermarkets that folded in 1977), even a Newsday delivery route.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Nassau chairman of the Long Island Business Council also runs several businesses: RMB Development Consultants, a commercial-builder consultancy; RMB Drafting, an expediting firm that helps obtain building and zoning permits; and an electrical inspection company, all based in East Meadow.

Each of those summer jobs taught him something. Great Eastern Mills revealed retail and demographic basics. The paperboy gig taught him “how much people don’t like to pay on a weekly basis.” All of the jobs reinforced the value of a dollar; his civil-servant parents worked hard but lived paycheck to paycheck.

And collectively, they showed him the importance of dealing with people face-to-face, something Lavone says is conspicuously missing from younger generations today – particularly from youth who don’t land a traditional summer job.

“Kids are constantly on their iPhones,” he said. “They’re missing out on interactions with other people. You can look in somebody’s eye and get the emotional feeling of what they’re about. Social media connects you to the rest of the world, but it limits you. It’s not human contact.”

Mitch Maiman, Intelligent Product Solutions // First summer job: Stock boy at the family drug store

Entrepreneurism is in Mitch Maiman’s blood. His father and his mother’s brother-in-law co-owned Maiman Pharmacy in Crown Heights, where the future president of Intelligent Product Solutions earned his first wage in the late 1960s. His mother’s family also owned a Brooklyn grocery.

So even when he became successful in other pursuits, including rising to vice president of engineering at what was then Symbol Technologies, “it was always in the back of my mind that I was underperforming,” Maiman said, “because I didn’t have my own business.”

Intelligent Product Solutions President Mitch Maiman is launching a practice group to focus on the Internet of Things.

It wasn’t until he launched his Ronkonkoma-based product design company in 2008 that Maiman felt he’d honored the lessons of Crown Heights. And while earning his own coin before attending high school taught him some valuable life lessons, Maiman is a big supporter of one of the main factors cited in the decline of summer jobs: the rise of internships.

Maiman, who interned with Nassau County road crews while studying engineering science at Hofstra, said Intelligent Product Solutions had five interns this summer. Not only do they get those critical networking and practical-experience benefits, but the company gets the fruits of the interns’ labor – one of the reasons Maiman insists on paying them.

“When you gain economic value from somebody’s work, no matter how trivial it may be, they should be paid,” he said. “A lot of companies don’t pay for interns but gain an economic value.”

Interns don’t make copies or sharpen pencils at Intelligent Product Solutions, Maiman noted, citing “meaningful work” for the young staffers – one reason why “we hire a pretty high percentage of them.”

“They get great experience here,” Maiman said. “Once they learn how the business works, the ones we like and have openings for hit the ground running as employees.”

Mark Meinberg, EisnerAmper // First summer job: Watch company mailroom

Meinberg_MarkPeople skills. Being responsible. Looking presentable. Meeting expectations. These talents serve Mark Meinberg well in his new role as partner in charge of Long Island business services for accounting powerhouse EisnerAmper – just as they carried him through the mailroom at the Gruen Watch Co. over 45 years ago.

As a 14-year-old tagging along with his father, a Gruen controller, in the summer of 1969, the Bayside native earned “just over minimum wages” on the lower floors of the watch company’s Manhattan offices. Far more valuable, he said, were those lifelong skills.

“People expected certain things,” Meinberg noted. “They expected you to pick up their mail, deliver their mail, make sure things got where they were supposed to go when they were supposed to, make bank deposits, run all kinds of errands.”

These are not unfamiliar concepts for major-league accountants with clients who also expect certain levels of communication, punctuality and responsibility – themes reinforced by another summer job on Meinberg’s résumé, bussing tables in the Catskills.

“People came to breakfast and they wanted the table set a certain way,” he said. “You had to clean up and be ready for lunch. It never stopped.

“I learned a real work ethic,” Meinberg added. “You have to be responsible. You can’t push off what you’re supposed to do to somebody else.”