Low-paid holiday jobs not always a bad deal

I have always loved walking around the city in December, when streets are awash with festive lights and good cheer. Visiting Clarke Quay, in particular, dredges up feelings of nostalgia. While most people remember special occasions at the hotels that flank the riverside or drunken nights out with friends, I hold on to memories of my vacation jobs in the area after my O levels.

I had answered an advertisement from a hospitality agency, and spent most of my time taking on waitressing gigs around the Singapore River, from wedding banquets at four-or five-star hotels to a quiet Japanese restaurant tucked away in The Central mall.

My friends thought that I was getting a raw deal.

After all, I earned only $5.50 to $7 an hour, and getting to the city and back home took at least an hour each way.

It was also menial, tiring work, particularly at the hotel banquets, where you had to clock in early to collect the uniform and change, go through spot checks on grooming and attire, and walk around the rest of the night in a huge banquet hall in court shoes.

For one month, I ferried huge plates of food and precariously balanced overloaded trays of drinks on my arms, attending to rowdy guests - some of whom leered or had unreasonable requests.

But it was one of the few vacation jobs readily available to 16-year-olds like me with time but scant qualifications. It was also a fascinating insight into the underbelly of the food and beverage and service industries, and a rare opportunity to cross paths with people other than the students and teachers I rubbed shoulders with in the cloistered hallways of my convent school.

I was petrified when I first reported for work. Like stepping into a new school on the first day, the workings of the institution were foreign and mysterious to me.

There were unknown doorways and underground passageways to employees' quarters, where workers milled around before a shift, and unspoken codes of conduct that you had to learn from observation when it came to knowing where to collect your uniform, where you could change and in which rooms you were allowed to eat.

I had signed up for the job with a friend, but she had bowed out due to other commitments. I was all on my own and fearful of making a faux pas in front of other part-timers - a mix of foreign and local students - who appeared much more practised than me.

Every day, before I clocked in around 5.30pm, I would utter a little prayer under my breath, hoping that I would not accidentally spill soya sauce on a guest's expensive dress and that my hands would not shake when refilling a pot of tea.

I marvelled with relief when I made it out without a hitch at 11.30pm, and agonised over embarrassing mistakes, like getting scolded by a chef for taking the wrong dish to a table.

But as time wore on, I began to feel less like someone who stuck out like a sore thumb. Managers knew me by face, if not by name.

I was touched beyond measure when one took the rap for me when I accidentally cracked a lazy Susan while cleaning up, and saw how an act like that can go a long way in instilling loyalty in employees.

I began volunteering for overtime shifts, which came with better pay and a free ride home. I started having meals before work with regular faces who became friends at work. A highlight that capped my stint was watching fireworks over the river during a rare escape to the hotel rooftop while working overtime on New Year's Eve.

Looking back, I can say that my first real work experience was not a raw deal for me. Learning how to fend for myself in a new system - and realising that I could assimilate into it - gave me confidence.

As someone who was more book-smart than street-smart, I learnt from the other waiters who were skilled at making decisions on the spot and resourceful at solving small crises.

Once, I shared a cab home with a girl after our overtime shift. She was a Chinese national and three years older than me. The job, for her, was not a vacation gig but a vital source of income.

Every day after school, she would rush to finish her homework before reporting for work, squeezing in just under six hours of sleep after a shift, before going to school the next day. I realised I was privileged to be able to focus on my studies during term time and not have to worry about helping my parents make ends meet.

Few students in Singapore, particularly those who attend junior college instead of polytechnic, take on vacation or part-time jobs while schooling.

They often prefer internships at professional firms, or job-shadowing schemes in multinational companies.

In Europe and the United States, however, working in vacation jobs is the norm. By 15, nearly two-thirds of American teenagers have had some form of work experience. I think there is merit to hands-on holiday jobs.

Mine taught me independence, problem-solving, teamwork and other vital soft skills that came in handy later when I did industry attachments. It also provided an experience that challenged my world view from an early age and forced me out of my comfort zone.

At the very least, I gained some insider knowledge, so if I were to hold a wedding banquet in future, I would know which hotels have dirty kitchens and to avoid them at all cost.

• #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Low-paid holiday jobs not always a bad deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe