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Illustration by Zohra Kassam

Students tell their tales of summer job triumph and tribulation

IT’S NO SECRET that many university students across the country are struggling to secure employment this summer. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and some students have resorted to working nightmare-inducing or insomnia-curing jobs just to make ends meet. On the other hand, a very lucky few have managed to score amazing work despite the dreadful job market. The following eight stories are firsthand accounts of the highs and lows of student summer employment.

It’s a wrap

After waiting by the phone for the first few weeks of summer, I was relieved to get a call at the end of June telling me that I was finally employed. My job is in the Industrial Park region of Belleville, Ont., and anyone familiar with the area knows that factories are the only places of employment for miles around. Having had positive work experiences in factories for the past two summers, I wasn’t concerned; however, my new job turned out to be nothing like I had imagined.

My place of employment specializes in taking finished packaged products and opening them, only to repackage them again—yes, you read that right. I open packages and then rewrap them. The job is redundant, unnecessary, and sometimes a little awkward, as the majority of products we package are “femcare” (otherwise known as tampons and pads).

From what I had gathered from my previous employment, factory work is a male-dominated industry. My new job, however, is quite different, as 70 per cent of the employees are women. When I first heard this favourable statistic, I was eager to start work and acquaint myself with the ladies. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that most of my co-workers are at least twice my age.

I can’t wait for school to start again.

—Jamie Crozier

Charming the snake

After applying to work at several different summer jobs, I was pretty excited to be hired as a maintenance worker at a conservation area. Admittedly, the job wasn’t my first choice, but as someone studying biology and the environment, I figured it would be a great way to put my education to work. I didn’t know exactly what my job entailed, but I expected lots of manual labour and the chance to show off my knowledge of nature by leading a park program or two. The only thing I knew prior to starting was that the superintendent of the conservation area was “particular” about washroom cleanliness.

My first day of work revealed to me that my duties included general maintenance of the park, cleaning camping lots, cutting grass, cleaning washrooms countless times a day, and doing “pump-outs” every other week. A pump-out is the process of removing rotting feces and urine from the septic tanks of trailers. Pump-outs began on Monday morning and ran until Tuesday afternoon. After putting on rubber gloves and safety glasses, my partner and I would get to work. We used a pump, a holding tank, and a long, heavy-duty hose attached to a small trailer, all of which were towed by a utility cart. I would ride on the back of the trailer, hugging the clear tank that filled up with excrement, while my partner manoeuvred the cart. I would then crawl under the trailer to the pump-out valve, where I was forced to curl up into a ball and hold the hose in place. I then opened the valves and sent feces and urine shooting through the hose, which we unaffectionately nicknamed the “Shitaconda.”

One day, while wrangling the Shitaconda, I heard my partner screaming. I immediately closed the valves and jumped out from underneath the trailer, only to find the holding tank was overflowing and spewing a fountain of poo. While my partner screamed and flapped his arms back and forth like a hopeless penguin, I dove through the shit to turn off the pump’s switch. I emerged triumphant, but covered from head to toe in human excrement.

What happened next? I hosed off and went back to work.

Needless to say, I never reapplied to the conservation area again.

—Mike Kent

Lucky shot

There is an old saying that goes, “If you enjoy your job, you will never have to work a day in your life.” I am living proof that this is true. Earlier this year I became a photographer’s assistant, and it was one of the best career decisions I have ever made. Not only do I get paid to travel, but I also get to do what I love most. My work allows me to exercise my creative side, which lay dormant for so long during my employment at a local hospital.

In May, I was flown to beautiful Bermuda to assist at a wedding—on the couple’s dime. I spent a week in New York City photographing engagement sessions and visiting galleries. I will be returning to New York in October for another wedding and February finds me travelling to Las Vegas to attend photography workshops.

When I am not travelling, I am editing photos and assisting at local shoots. Most workplaces ban their employees from using Facebook or Twitter, but I clock in hours networking, as part of my job is to maintain the studio’s communications department.

Did I mention I’m getting paid to do this?

—Dani-Elle Dubé

Two misses and a hit

A short two weeks after crossing the stage to receive my university degree, I found myself standing behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant. Looking down at my ketchup-stained uniform, it was hard to believe that I had donned a cap and gown only 14 days ago. The whole point of post-secondary education is to avoid a career in fast-food… isn’t it?

Even though returning to my high-school job was a shot to my pride, I was still grateful to be working at all. Employment opportunities are scarce in my hometown, and I have a student loan to pay back. I was happy to be working, but my gratitude didn’t stop me from dropping off a resumé at every workplace in the city.

After a few false starts, I was eventually hired by a landscaping company. Picturing myself getting in touch with nature and soaking up the sun made it easy to hand in my two weeks’ notice at the restaurant. Little did I know, my new job involved 10-hour days, blistering heat, and perpetually unhappy customers. Once again, my resumés found their way onto desks all over the city.

I am pleased to say that I am now employed at the cushy office summer job I always anticipated having after graduation. The third job’s the charm.

—Kevin Honig

Folding, taping, and stapling

Some summer jobs change your life for the better, and others remind you of why you’re in school. I had the displeasure of working the latter a couple of years ago at a marketing and incentives company. What exactly does a marketing and incentives employee do? In my case, the answer was stand for 10.5-hour shifts, five days a week, while feverishly folding, taping, and stapling papers and filling cardboard displays. Music was banned and talking was strongly discouraged, so boredom was a formidable foe in the workplace.

After a few months on the job, I finally—if not somewhat begrudgingly—began to accept my position; however, little did I know what the month of August was to unleash upon me. The heat was unbearable. Human bodies, vehicles, and whirring machinery caused the temperatures inside the building to soar into the mid-40s. It only took a few days of the 20-minutes-on, 10-minutes-off shifts (as were required by law under such temperatures) for me to hand in my two weeks’ notice. I can honestly say that I’ve never been happier to quit a source of steady income than I was that summer.

—Keeton Wilcock

Man versus grass versus fly

“I simply love the smell of freshly mown grass!”

Well, customers, if you love it so much, why not cut your own lawn? Discouragingly enough, this summer has taught me that being a third-year honours journalism student really gets a guy places in the lawn-care industry.

Some students would jump at the opportunity to be outside in the heat, interacting with customers and getting a mean tan while cutting lawns all day. But for some (such as yours truly), the mindlessness and monotony of cutting grass takes its toll.

Boredom aside, I also find myself being threatened by elderly customers on a weekly basis: “You won’t have a job if you continue to whippersnip too close to my trees!” My severe seasonal allergies are unbearable after spending eight hours outside each day. To make matters worse, North Bay, Ont., the little slice of paradise I call home in the summer, happens to be one of the very few locations in the world blessed with the presence of the shad fly. Put simply, the shad fly is the most annoying bug on the planet. The mere mention of its name is enough to make even the most seasoned lawn cutter shudder, as the flies swarm the second they hear the roar of the mowers.

At the end of the day, my job allows me to return to school in Ottawa each September, so I guess the angry old people, severe allergy symptoms, and unfortunate presence of irritating bugs are all small sacrifices. But, I must admit, I do have my fingers crossed that my degree will eventually take me somewhere further than the lawn-care business.

—Liam Berti

Pleasantly surprised in the Park

The summer after my first year of university, I left Ottawa behind to move to Algonquin Park. Even though I grew up in the country, I was less than excited about being shipped off to a remote location where cellphone reception and Internet—not to mention cute boys—were hard to find. To make matters worse, I was going to be sharing a two-bedroom cabin with my brothers and my dad. It’s not difficult to understand why I was skeptical about my summer job as a cashier at Algonquin Outfitters.

The morning my dad dropped me off at the store, my entire perspective changed. Seeing the mist rise off of Lake Opeongo was enough to make me instantly fall in love. I had never seen a more beautiful place in my life! The job itself wasn’t overly exciting, but the people I came into contact with, co-workers and customers alike, made it more than memorable. I became closer with my family and experienced many new things—including nearly walking into a moose! That summer was filled with happy memories, laughter, and people whom I came to love.

I’ve since worked a couple of office jobs in Ottawa, but regardless of where I end up, the best part of my summer is the time I get to spend in Algonquin Park—a place that will always feel like home.

—Kiera Obbard

Fortunate in a Ford

No one told me how early I needed to apply for City of Ottawa or other highly sought-after summer internships in my first year of university. By late February, most places had concluded their application period. February gave way to March, and the prospect of my being able to stay in Ottawa for the summer dwindled. At the end of exams, I knew I would be spending the next few months in my hometown, a small city I thought I had finally escaped.

Truthfully, it didn’t take long to find a job back home. I was quickly employed with a lawn-care company, which I assumed meant steady work and half-decent pay, but would likely involve hours of pulling out weeds and trimming lawns in the blistering heat.

Unbelievably, my employment was nothing like I had anticipated. I managed to land myself one of the cushiest jobs in the city. I spent my days driving a Ford F-150 carrying a huge tank of herbicides through chemical refineries. My co-worker had the unlucky duty of walking beside the truck and spraying the overgrowth of weeds with the herbicide. My sole responsibility was to drive alongside him at two miles per hour for eight hours a day while he was doomed to walk through the summer heat in overalls and a face mask.

Thanks to a sweet twist of fate, my summer employment turned out to be a really luxurious experience.

—Kevin McCormick