First Job, Car Wash
Getting your first job is a milestone in life. It's something we all do, but the experience can be completely different for everyone. I worked part-time in high school and full-time during the summer breaks. What bothered me most was when I wanted to still have a fun, social life as a teenager, but had to work around my work schedule and hope my requests for time off were granted the few times I needed it. Why does this often seem to be a problem for low wage jobs that people struggle to get time off? It's one thing to not be paid for your time off, I get that from the low wage employment stance with no benefits, but why does that seem to be a common struggle to be able to take time off at all? In all my professional jobs since, getting time off has been easy, especially if you have people that can cover your work. Anyways, In high school it always bothered me when the kids who didn't work or just worked for mom or dad's business just assumed I could take off whenever, no problem. No, I actually have to put in a request for time off ahead of time, maybe hope I can get someone else to cover for me, and hope it's approved. I can't just say I'll be gone and everything's fine. Some kids just never understood that!
I got my first job in the summer of 2007. I was 16 years old and just got my driver's license a few months prior. My older brother worked at a full-service car wash about a mile from where we lived and I often saw him come home with wads and wads of cash he'd earn at work. That looked pretty cool to make some money and be outside and active too - not cooped up in some retail outlet or fast food place. This place was a car wash, gas station, and detail shop combo. I went into the convenience store (c-store) and picked up an application to fill out at home. I can't remember what I put on it since I had no previous official work history. Must've been a lot of blank areas. Somebody please remind me how to fill out a job application for a first time employee. Also, if you've ever been a hiring person, how do you know if you can trust a first-time employee. What things do you look for?
The next morning I returned with my application and asked to see the manager. This took a lot of courage for me because I'm a very shy person and was venturing into this new experience on my own, with not a lot of confidence as I've never applied to a job before and didn't know what to expect. I asked the c-store cashier lady if I could speak with the manager about my application and she told me she saw him walking out on the property, so I went out to find him then introduced myself, "Hi are you Mike the manager?" I don't remember his exact name, but I'll use Mike. While handing him my application I told him who my brother was and that I would like to work here too. My brother moved on and was no longer working there, but Mike must've liked my brother or was already in a good mood for the day because we hit it off well. He took me into the small office and after some small talk he was already offering me the job! I couldn't believe it was that fast and easy! I felt so lucky because at a later date I saw in the office there was literally a small stack of a few other applications on the desk. Some people get lucky and the rest are just left in a pile. That's job hunting for ya.
For orientation I had to go to two or three days of training at the corporate office, which was just an hour or two each day consisting of filling out paperwork, beginner training stuff, safety, and learning some company background. Then, on a warm, summer morning, dressed in uniform, I showed up on time for my first shift at my first job. I met with Manager Mike again and after a brief tour of the property he left me at the vacuuming area with the supervisor in charge. Vacuuming is the starting spot for all new hires - and it sucks. You're hunched over the seats scrubbing away with those crappy car wash vacuum hoses trying to get every last grain out, but the particles keep bouncing around in the velcro-like carpet of vehicles. Then you have to try and cram the vacuum nose into every crevice between seats and consoles and get as much as you can so customers won't complain. Some cars barely need vacuuming, some are horrendously disgusting, but the average car coming through only took about a full minute and a half or so with each two-man team. We started in the back, pushing the seats all the way forward for better working room, then moved to the front and pushed the front seats back, then returned the seats to original position the best we could and do the trunk if accessible.
When new vehicles pulled up, they were greeted by a ticket writer who speaks with the customers to write service orders and try to up-sell services. The ticket writer checks some boxes on the carbon copy tickets and makes any notes for customer requests. The customer gets the original to go pay and match the finished job at the end and the carbon copy is left on the dash for employees to know what type of service to do on that vehicle. Customers leave their vehicles to us and waited in designated waiting areas inside or outside the c-store. There was a lane on the side of the vacuum terminals designated as exterior only for the cheapest wash. Sometimes the exterior only people took it through the wash themselves and sometimes they would also get out and let us do it all. Living in sunny Las Vegas, this car wash kept pretty busy year-round.
After working there for a little while and gaining trust with supervisors, I was allowed to be a designated driver who could move the vehicles from the vacuuming area to the car wash entrance. Sometimes we had a guy working the entrance that would do a quick spray over the vehicle, especially to help get bug splats off, and punch the wash order into the machine to send it through. If not, whoever drove it up had to get out and punch the code in to send it through and then return to the vacuuming area.
Working the vacuums sucked, but getting my first pay check was awesome. I laugh at how little it was now, but earning around $200/week as a 16 year-old with no expenses was great! I was a money saver and squirreled it away to buy big things later, but it was also nice to have good spending money whenever I wanted to indulge. I also had an advantage here that was my key to getting out of the vacuuming. I could drive manual (stick shift) cars. Because of this, and lucky timing for when I was hired, I was promoted from vacuuming to driver in only two or three weeks.
I loved the driver position. The drivers are responsible for driving the cars from the exit of the wash, to the drying lanes, keeping them in order to make sure everything is done as fast as possible, meaning one lane doesn't have 3 cars while the other only has one. The drivers also have to maintain the supply of towels for the wipers by collecting all the used towels from the baskets in drying lanes, sort, wash and dry them, then place them in a basket outside ready to reuse. Each car coming out of the wash would get 4 or 5 towels usually rolled up and placed in that spot between the hood and the windshield wiper blades that served as the perfect crevice to hold them, or just on top of the wiper blades which usually held them just fine. The roll had two towels for the glass and interior and two for the exterior/body. Sometimes a fifth towel would be included for rims or just extra use on whatever else.
I loved this position because it was fairly simple to do, but also kept you busy; and one of the best perks was being able to stay in the wash tunnel where it was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Standing in the blowers after a vehicle exits or when they stay on between cars that are spaced far enough apart was a fun experience and nice to cool off. Drivers received a "tip-out" which was a little extra cash tip at the end of each day that was gleaned off of the tips from all the wipers, so I think it was like an extra $2-$4/hr raise that isn't taxed on a paycheck; and of course the job itself was much better than vacuuming. If it was really slow and you've already refilled all the cleaning supplies and towels outside it was nice to hang out in the little side room of the wash tunnel to wash any remaining towels and pretend like you're busy. The extractor machine for washing towels had three sections. A spinning extractor in the middle and a sink on each side. The right side was used for the towels and the left held all the greasier sponges and towels that were used in the detailing garage in the back. The left sink was usually only run once or twice a day as the demand for those materials was a lot less and you could fit a lot more in than the regular use towels on the right.
The sinks did have hookups for soap to be dispensed, but we stopped using it because the soaped towels would sometimes leave streaks and - business costs - you know. We would let the used towels just soak in water and agitate it occasionally with our hands. If we were really rushed there were many times that we'd quickly dump them in the water and immediately put them in the extractor. No time to wait for soaking. I remember a few times being the only driver on duty and we got SLAMMED. Vehicles were coming out of the wash almost bumper to bumper, so as soon as the vehicle driver door cleared the wash walls I was jumping in, driving them over to lanes, and literally sprinting back to catch the next one rolling off the track. If I had time to catch even a very short break I would grab as many towels as I could from the baskets, throw them in the wash water and almost immediately into the extractor. If I was too busy even for that then a supervisor or one of the wipers would have to quickly wash some towels. If you're wondering what happens if no one gets to the car coming out in time, usually it just sits at the end of the tracks and hopefully another vehicle doesn't come pushing into the back of it. It's also possible, and I've seen it happen, for the tracks to push it just hard enough that it will slowly keep rolling down the lot. I haven't seen any vehicles get damaged, but I did witness some occasions when someone left the vehicle in drive at the entrance of the tunnel, so it went bouncing over the track rollers and sped through the wash. Some guys made a futile and probably dangerous attempt to slow it down by bracing the front of it themselves, but once it cleared the walls of the wash tunnel someone jumped in and stepped on the brake. It was a good thing there weren't any other cars in the tunnel ahead of it. Kind of exciting to see crazy stuff happen, but it's never been a really big deal in the end.
I think I was in that driver position for 2 or 3 months until finally making it to the big money - a wiper up front. Wipers dry the vehicles and do a little extra cleaning on the rims and interiors, depending on the service customers purchased. Wipers make the big money because they get all the tips from customers. Getting stiffed was rare and the average was $2-$3 per vehicle. I'm pretty sure I averaged around $16-$18/hr with hourly wages plus tips. That's what I remember calculating back then when I crunched the numbers. All tips are cash and none of it is ever reported for taxes. It was nice to come home with wads of cash every night.
Wipers always worked in pairs. One person does the front driver-side corner to the back passenger-side corner and the other person does the drivers side and back, plus the inside console if required by the service. In that case the other person does all the wheels while the inside is getting cleaned. We worked fast, but good enough to not leave streaks or anything to get a complaint. The faster you go, the more vehicles you do, the more you collect in tips. I liked working with some of the immigrants who came from Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru because those guys were fast. They usually had me interact with the customer because my english was better and they probably thought customers would tip me more; or maybe they knew they were just faster at pushing through vehicles.
Sometimes a nice sports car or expensive vehicle would come through and wipers would fight over who gets it and try to convince the drivers to bring it to them. A person that drives an expensive vehicle is more likely to pay a good tip, but never guaranteed. I remember there also being a few regulars that the wipers knew and they would either want that vehicle for the good tip, or avoid it because they always stiff. On two or three occasions there was a regular that actually requested a specific employee to work on their car.
At the end of a shift or before a break, a wiper team would split all of their tips in the break room. If it was an odd number, there's a coin toss or someone decides to just give it to the other person. Nobody really wanted to break a dollar into quarters or deal with splitting coins.
Now here are some things we hated: tanks, late nights, chances of rain, and, as expected, annoying customers. Tanks are what we called large SUVs, vans, and trucks. They were annoying to do because they took more time and often held more water around their bodies, so the towels would get soaked and make it harder to dry. You want to process as many vehicles as possible to get more tips, so when you get stacked with a few tanks to slow you down it can effect your pay.
In the winter we were closed at 7pm and 9pm in the summer. We hated late nights after it got dark because we couldn't see very well to do a proper clean, it was very slow with no customers, but mostly because we wanted to start closing up and going home. Just as many other businesses, employees don't like the people coming in last minute. The same principle goes for when it's cloudy out and there's a chance of rain. Most people wanted to just close and go home because there was so little business and the pathetic hourly pay just wasn't worth it. However, the wash would only close if it was a strong, steady downpour that lasted more than 20 minutes and was forecast to continue that way. Being in Vegas, it didn't rain very often or hard enough to close, but those cloudy days with a chance of rain were usually pretty slow for business. Do people still get their cars washed when it's raining? Yes! For some reason, people do! It's weird, but yes we still had people coming through with their cars even while there's a light drizzle coming down. For some I understand they want the interior cleaned anyway, but for others - I just don't get it. Maybe one of you listeners can enlighten me.
There was one day I remember that had a light, steady rain for a while in the early afternoon. Business was very slow, so they started sending several people home; but then, right before our rush hour, the storm clouds moved on and cars started trickling in again. Then more came. Then even more. Then we all of the sudden had the busiest rush hour I've ever had we were very short staffed from sending people home earlier. The few of us left there were SLAMMED with work! It was insane! Parking lot full of cars in lines going into the vacuum area and pumping out bumper to bumper out of the tunnel. All 4 lanes filled with vehicles. All hands on deck, everyone working vigorously to move as quickly as possible while maintaining quality work. Thankfully, most customers were pretty nice and patient through the rush madness and at the end of the night we congratulated each other on a job well done and celebrated the fact that we made so much money that day.
During normal business times, there's the occasional annoying customers that were very picky about their vehicle. They would try to get a personal detail on their vehicle by a wiper out front instead of paying for the actual detailing service which is done in the garage in the back. These people were so annoying. I don't mind doing a few extra touch-ups for you or wiping streaks if there were any to make sure it's done right, but please don't waste our time trying to cheat your way into an upgraded service you didn't pay for.
Two instances come to mind when I had to deal with annoying customers. One was a silent lady that just pointed at areas I assumed she wanted touched up more. No words, just pointed. It was insulting to me and I found it rude to not even respect me as a person to communicate with nothing other than pointing. There was a spot where water made its way out of a crack that trickled down even after blowing it out and a rim that she wanted a little extra attention on, but then it started getting ridiculous where you can only see the smallest smudges if the light hits it just right. The last one she finally used her voice because she walked to the other side of the car while I was squatting down cleaning a rim. "There's another over here," she said. I finished what I was working on and walked over to see what she was pointing at and I didn't get it. There was nothing there. "You don't see that?" She rudely commented. "No I'm sorry I don't" I answered while moving around trying to get a different angle on what she was seeing. She did have sunglasses that might've inhibited her vision, but then I found it. "Oh this?" I leaned in really close for a better look. It was a blemish on the vehicle paint that I pretended to scrub a little until she just walked away to the other side again for a final look-over. That saved me from having an even worse conversation that her perfect car had imperfections and they probably weren't caused by the car wash.
The other instance was when we had to park a large SUV because the customer wasn't outside waiting for it yet. There was a little area we moved cars out of the way if the customer wasn't there to pick it up after washing. When the owner came and checked it out he asked if I could follow him to it. That's never a good sign. He opened up the back doors and asked me to get the jambs again and also asks if he can have a rag. He started working on his vehicle too and commented about how he used to work here and that he can see how the quality has been going downhill - passive aggressive rudeness towards me. He kept me there for a very long time and my partner had to keep moving on by himself and we were pretty busy at that moment and now getting backed up. This guy wanted me to keep wiping and cleaning and detailing, taking far longer than the average service is supposed to take. It wasn't fixing mistakes we made, it was cleaning well beyond our standard clean. I finally had enough and told him I can't keep cleaning more than the standard for the service he paid for. "I'm sorry but I have to get back to our lines and there's nothing more I can do here without charging for extra service." He made another rude comment about him just finishing it himself then and that was that.
Managers and supervisors at any job can be a hit or miss. Sometimes you get to work with good ones that are good at their job. Sometimes they're good people, but bad at managing. Some might be real jerks that have good manager numbers and some are just bad and don't last long - or at least they shouldn't. I experienced a few managers and supervisors turnover throughout my two years at the car wash. Towards the end of my employment there we had the worst. We had this new woman managing the place that was very strict with rules and she wanted everyone constantly working. Usually we were all pretty good at pretending to be busy when it was really slow, or doing a few errands to keep things clean and organized for our work; but this manager was extreme and annoying. She would invent odd chores to do around the property that everyone hated and it usually involved extensive cleaning. Everything else was just straightening up our appearances, the tables and chairs in the waiting area, and reorganizing and cleaning our work area over and over. She wanted to save money by using the most out of product and never wasting or going over. It was stressful because we needed our bottles filled, but she'd be checking on how many times we filled them and how much we were using. One of the extensive cleaning jobs we did was cleaning the trash cans on the property and even using some of the product to make the black, plastic cans shiny like new. Yeah. Save pennies by reducing product use on the important stuff just to spend dollars cleaning the trash cans, gutters, and whatever other odd items and places. Sometimes when it was really slow she'd have us start cleaning the tunnel, just to have our cleaning work erased when the next car came through. Her excuse was that it was prep work and will be easier to clean at closing - which it really wasn't.
This manager was very strict and kind of rude, but then she would sometimes try talking to you casually and be a friend but it was so awkward. You can't be our friend and be rude and demanding at the same time. It was also just awkward conversations when she wanted to be friendly with some employees and it felt forced. This manager also had a sidekick though. A new supervisor I think his name was Juan. Juan would give the same strict rules and stupid orders, but he wasn't confident in his position and people were a lot more prone to giving him attitude about the extra work.
I was getting near the end of my stay at this job because I was going away to college soon. It was late July one evening and Juan asked me to go clean the employee bathroom in the tunnel because it was slow. We weren't dead, just slow. I was annoyed because I've been doing random jobs for he and the manager all week and if I left my post to clean the bathroom I will miss out on the next vehicles coming through which is lost tip money. Plus, that bathroom is really gross. I declined his request saying, "No. There are still cars about to come through and cleaning bathrooms is not my job." I acknowledge now that "not my job" is never a good phrase to use at any job throughout your life unless it really is warranted for inappropriate assignments. I should've said something else that explained why I believed that to be an unfair request, but he didn't press the issue to ask again and didn't even ask in a stern command in the first place. He just - left. Had he been real serious I guess I would've just done it, but I was sick of this guy and the other manager. I was tired at the end of a long day.
I had a day off and then the following day I was brought into the manager's office and calmly reprimanded by the manager for disobeying Juan's order to clean the bathroom. Juan was sitting in there too just leaning his face on his hand quietly. I was suspended for a week and I calmly apologized, gave my reason for declining, and left. I didn't mind having a free summer week off, but I was very annoyed at the fact this happened, especially at Juan. When I returned the following week some of the guys made jokes and some were shocked that I was suspended. I was generally just the quiet kid that just did his work and went home. I worked just a few more days then put in my two-weeks notice. I was tired of this new manager and supervisor and I wanted to enjoy some vacation time for my last month of summer before moving away anyway. This job served me well throughout high school and I made great money. I was able to pay for my own used car in cash. I had that car for over a decade and it rarely had any problems. Later on I found out from people that worked there longer that it was discovered that the manager and Juan were "romantically" connected and were replaced.
Looking back I don't know how I survived it all in high school. The early mornings with school starting at 7am, physically demanding sports after school, then straight to work right after exhausting practices and more work on Saturdays in the hot sun. Plus homework, school projects, and keeping up a social life. I can't believe I did all that. How much did I even sleep!? Now I feel like it's a struggle to get through a day at an easy desk job unless I get like 9 hours of sleep (which is never). Maybe when you're in better shape involved in these activities, it's easier to get up and stay on top of things. I've gotten lazy, so doing more is exhausting.
Believe it or not, I ended up working at another car wash during an off-track in college 4 years later. I was so embarrassed to go back to working in a car wash because I've already done a couple years in college and thought I was worth more. To me this just proved that what you learn in college for most degrees isn't really important. Society only cares about finishing to get that certification even though the work you actually end up doing can be done by most people with training. I was also embarrassed and disappointed because I had tried for months to get a decent internship and never did. Decent internships are still competitive and tough to get just as any ordinary job. I only had a few months before going back to school full-time, so I wanted a job as soon as possible that paid as much as possible. When I couldn't get anything I got desperate and just needed an income asap. I went to a car wash because I already had experience and knew there was tipping potential. I was so stupid and didn't think it through though because I was now in Idaho with a much different climate and culture.
Las Vegas is typically sunny year-round and people generally tip more. The place I worked at was much more well-known, in a better location, and busy. This new place in Idaho - sucked. I would've made more working at a fast-food place or retail for minimum wage because they probably would've given me more hours. This new car wash place I was at was never busy and their usual traffic wasn't even steady, plus the location was not in a very affluent area. No, it was more lower-middle class. Silly me also forgot that it was getting into late fall and early winter in Idaho which meant even less car wash business due to frequent cloudy weather and more snow/rain.
So there I was working part-time starting out at vacuuming again cold and bored. After about a month I was finally moved into the wiping area which was inside the tunnel, but at the end. The tunnel was extended and wider than the place in Vegas, but I didn't like this new setup of wiping down the vehicles while they're rolling along at the end of the track. If they were busy they pulled a few cars off to the side, but there wasn't that much space and there wasn't a designated area for them. It was weird, not very efficient, and not as aesthetically pleasing for the business process.
When I applied to this place, the original job posting boasted, "competitive wages" which turned out to be $7.55 instead of the $7.25 minimum wage. "ooh wee, a whole 30 cents more than minimum wage is 'competitive.'" The manager complained during the hiring process that they had a lot of turnover, especially within the first three months for new hires and he wanted to avoid that. Gee, I wonder why so many people left this boring, part-time job with "competitive wages," especially when your normal 6-hour shift is sometimes shortened to 3 hours whenever the weather is bad.
I did feel a little bad since I already knew I would only be staying for about 3-months before quitting to go back to school, but if I told employers my intention of leaving after a few months I would never be hired anywhere. I did work for a Temp agency, but even that place wasn't very reliable once my first and only job there finished. My excuse for leaving this car wash after just a few months was that I was recently engaged and we decided to move for her job. It was true that I did recently get engaged, but I didn't want him to figure out I originally wasn't planning to stay there long anyway.
My advice for anyone looking to get their first job, is to work at a place with tipping potential like good car washes in busy locations like warm, sunny cities, or working in restaurants or maybe delivery places. You'll probably make way more than your average retail or fast food place if you get into a good place that earns tips. However, if you are very into a certain store or product and want some kind of employee discount or reputation, work at those places if it serves you a better advantage. Likewise, if you already know what kind of career path you want later in life, work at relative places to have a start on your resume. It might be worth working at certain places for less pay if it provides a better outlook on your resume later. When I graduated from college I was embarrassed to only have lousy work experience from a car wash, warehouse, and other irrelevant jobs. They made more money, generally, but led to nowhere. I wasn't able to get an internship either, so it was very difficult selling myself to future employers.
Do you have an interesting first or early job experience? Have any recommendations for others? Why did you get it and what did you like or hate about it?
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