What was the hardest manual labor job I’ve ever had?

I was a “Picker” for a large supermarket chain in their warehouse on the second shift. What’s a “Picker”? I Picker was a position that would take an order from one of the grocery stores that used our warehouse, and I would drive around on a pallet jack and physically pick all the cases and items going to that store on a semi-truck.

A pallet jack isn’t a Hi-Lo, it’s more like a “Lo-Lo” it held two wood pallets, just off ground-level and the goal was to build those pallets up to six-eight feet, wrap them tightly in plastic shrink wrap, and then load them onto the truck. Some orders took 15 minutes to fill, some took over an hour, every single one was different.

The warehouse was giant. Like ten football fields with aisle after aisle of products, you would find in a large grocery store. Some heavy, some light, all shapes, and sizes. It was a Union shop, but I was a temp summer worker. So, most of the workers were full-time, long-term Union workers, over 90% men. My Dad was an executive in the offices of this company. A family friend was the Union Steward in the warehouse.

This job taught me that I didn’t want to work manual labor my entire life! 

But, it also taught me to respect the true value of manual labor jobs.

It also taught me so much about life, work, and fitting in on the job:

  • Instantly the union guys knew my Dad was in management, and boy did I catch sh*t for that! I quickly learned to have tough skin and you better give back as well as you were getting in that environment.
  • About a month into this job I came home at 2 am and woke up my Dad crying telling him I was going to college (Yes! Crying. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but it was memorable!). It was physically hard! It was hot. It was dirty. I didn’t want to go back in. I was working next to guys who had been doing that job for twenty-plus years!
  • A Union-shop has formal and informal rules. To survive you must quickly learn the informal rules or you won’t last. I was told specifically to slow down my work pace or all four tires of my car would be slashed. Even though I wasn’t even making rate and all the full-time union guys ran circles around me!
  • After you filled an order you had to go get another. There was one lady who did this, behind a glass window in an air-conditioned office. You could feel the cold air through the hole in the glass. Very quickly you learned there were easy orders and hard orders, and orders you could more easily make “rate” on. The lady was a big girl, normal looking, middle-aged, to see all of us guys sweet up to her like she was a runway model trying to get easy orders, boy that was a site! Always be super nice to the person doling out the work!
  • You need to find your tribe. I wasn’t the only summer temp, college kid, there were a bunch of us and we found early on it best we stick together. We ate lunch together, found each other on breaks, helped each other when we could. The union guys weren’t going to help.
  • Hard-ass manual labor jobs are marathons, not sprints. We worked 8-hour shifts, but almost every night had to do mandatory 2-4 hours of overtime. They wouldn’t tell us if we were working or not, because if you knew you had to work 12 hours that night, you were not working fast!
  • I was 18, the legal drinking age in Michigan was 21. After our shift on payday, all the guys would go to a bowling alley down the street that was open until 2 am. They would cash our checks and let us drink like men. Young guys would be drunk after two beers and the union guys would take the summer guys’ cash when they were in the bathroom and give it to the waitresses! Always keep your cash in your pocket!
  • Second-shit sucks! You go in around 3 pm, if you’re lucky you get out at 11 pm or midnight. Go home, can’t sleep, finally, get down around 3 am, wake up at noon the next day and basically start it all again.
  • Union or Non-Union manual labor shops are really going to test you. The fact is, they want to work with people who are going to work. Really work! If you don’t carry your weight, eventually it will come back to more work on everyone. So, they push you to try and quit because they only want people around them that really want to be there or have to be there, but show up and work!
  • I had so much fun at that job with probably the most diverse workforce I’ve ever been in. We were all in the middle of it and equally giving each other sh*t constantly. All of which would have gotten us all canceled and fired today. It was in many ways a brotherhood. What happened on the floor, stayed on the floor. Very much workers vs. management.

I think every single kid, male and female, right after high school, but for sure before they graduate college should have to work a manual labor job. Too many kids come into the work world with this warped perception of what work is, and too many look down on the millions of workers truly busting their backs doing the work you don’t want to do.

At the very least, I would prefer to hire a kid with a solid degree from a state school who I know worked a manual job or two in their life, then a perfect student from Harvard who never got dirty. Our society has in so many ways devalued ‘real’ hard work, manual labor, no-skill, low-skill.

What was that hardest manual labor job you ever worked?

11 thoughts on “What was the hardest manual labor job I’ve ever had?

  1. I totally agree every kid should experience manual labor and am thankful you pointed out, we are all equal, and yes, maybe the most diverse workforce I’ve been in. After I graduated High School, are started working in a factory which made cardboard displays like you see in grocery stores. I continued working this job at during when I was home on Winter & Summer Breaks from college. Long hours usually 10-12 hours shifts 6 days a week. It was rough, but I learned a lot in that job and have much appreciation for manual labor jobs now.

  2. Summer between my junior to senior year of high school I worked the closing shift of a global chain fast food burger shop. Because it was closing shift I had a shift differential, because I was under 18 I had a shift differential (state law at the time).
    1. It was tedious but not difficult, which is why it’s not worth a ‘living wage.’
    2. It wasn’t much in doubt but that job made sure I pursued some sort of college degree.
    3. Your commentary explains perfectly why unions are a cancer to the workforce.

  3. Detasseling Corn was my first, and longest term, employment. I grew up in central Indiana and everyone I knew detasseled so I was there with my friend! I started at 13yo and did it every summer until I graduated from college some 10 years later (it took me longer than most….). It was a love/hate relationship. The worst year was when my sister was my crew boss. She expected so much more from me than everyone else. It may have been a horrible summer working for my sister, but it taught me that expectations changed and you had to be up for the changes or you would not be successful in pulling those tassels!

    I also worked in a restaurant one year in college. It was a an “upscale” pizza place and I waited tables, cleaned toilets, washed dishes, etc. It was the most fun job I have ever had. On weekends we would make up to $250 in tips and then go out after work to the bars!

  4. Restaurant and retail work really shined a light on the kinds of paths a college degree could offer me. As a life long equestrian, when I was laid off for a summer, I mucked stalls for my coach for a couple of weeks to work off a portion of my bills.

    I realize that manual labor, retail life and restaurant hours were all things that make me appreciate what I consider to be a cushy 8-5 desk job with benefits, a 401K and the opportunity to work from home occasionally.

    Working in these kinds of environments has given me the grit and humility that my current employer appreciates..

  5. When I was younger, I worked in the restaurant business for 11 years while also working a professional job. I did everything from cook to hostess, wait tables to bartend. I made awesome money so could afford to work the professional job. The summer after my senior year, I drove a Good Humour truck in Detroit and Ann Arbor. You may remember the fateful night when, returning from Ann Arbor on a carless freeway, I was met at the exit ramp by four police cars. Rioters were firing at cars from the roofs near the Good Humour building. All made me a better person and helped me establish a foundation for an ever-since value-based workplace, consulting practice, and writing.

  6. I’ve always said, EVERY person should be forced to work at least 1 week in a restaurant (front and back of house) and 1 week in retail (but Dec 15-Jan 15 to get the best and worst of it). Manual labor and customer facing service rolled into one! I found it gave me a perspective I hadn’t seen growing up, and taught me having a strong, hardworking, bonded crew with a rhythm made all the difference. There was no slouching off, there was no “I’ll get to it tomorrow” and you must put on a happy face even when the customer is wrong or a jerk. (PS – that trained me well for my HR career, hahahaha). From 15-28 I worked retail and restaurant and yes, the stuff we said and did to each other would have us all fired and sued nowadays.

  7. Long time reader, first time comment poster. YES. Cannot agree with these thoughts more. My jobs in middle school, high school and college consisted of corn detassling, pizza cook / dishwasher, warehouse worker, summer janitor help at high school, summer worker at public works dept. College internship even had some manual labor worked in. Created a great “hard work benchmark” for me.

  8. I was on the crew who built the Shell Station on Jefferson & Chene in Downtown Detroit the summer after my senior year in high school. Very similar parallels to your experience. As the least skilled laborer on the site I was the grunt man: destroying walls, smashing concrete, painting curbs….. woke up early and left mid-afternoon to grab a 40oz of Old English at a fine local Detroit convenience store before high-tailing it back to the burbs. I had the earn the respect of the men on the site but they were inspired by the future I had in front of me. In many ways, the best job I ever had. Fun Post!

  9. As a midwest girl, I detasseled. My dad worked for a seed corn company so it really wasn’t an option for me, it was predetermined from birth that I was doing it. I started when I was twelve years old and worked that job for 6 summers. The season lasted anywhere from 3-4 weeks, and that first summer I made about $1,000, which is a lot of money for a 12 y/o. The bus left 5:15 AM everyday, and my older sister and I would walk across our small town to catch it. You better not miss the bus or you were not getting your end of season bonus. Plus, your parents would kick your @$$, because they knew the crew leaders and would get a report from them if you missed. The mornings were freezing cold and wet, and the afternoons were stifling hot. The corn leaves would slice any skin that was showing, and I would always break out in corn rash from the pollen. As a grown woman I’m 5’3″, so when I was a 12 year old, as the season progressed and the corn got taller, I really had to stretch to reach some of those tassels. We worked until the fields were done, some days were 6 hour days and some days were 9+ hour days. We walked for miles every single day, but I actually really enjoyed it. There was something so wonderful about doing physical labor outside. I was working alongside kids my age, so having those comrades made it really fun as well.

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