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Story Last modified at 2:35 p.m. on Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Strong work ethic is best survival skill we can teach

One summer I was sitting in a relatively empty McDonald's in Houston, Texas when a group of boys crowded into the booth next to me. They were all clean and well-dressed, and I estimate in the 13-16 year-old range.

One of youngest asked me if I had a dollar. I responded, "Yes I do."

"Can I have it?" He said, leaning toward me.

"No," I said curtly. "Get a job."

The boy looked at me with surprise, turned to his friends, and said: "What's his problem?

"My problem," I said, glaring at the group, "is that I have worked since I was about 8 years old, and I know there are jobs out there for kids your age. There are hundreds of lawns within a mile that need attention. Go to work."

Mumbling, with disgusted looks on their faces, the boys quickly moved to a booth farther away.

I can clearly remember my first job in Seward at age 8, joined by a couple of friends about the same age. Our task was to paint the outside of a house – actually white wash it. The owner, a teacher at the elementary school, got everything ready, taped off the windows and turned us loose. We were as white as the house when we finished. I remember feeling really proud on the way home to have some money in my pocket that I had earned myself.

In subsequent years I would often glance with pride at that house and notice that for a very long time, it remained whiter than the other white houses.

Somehow, at a very early age, my parents taught me how important it is to work and to take pride in what we do. I remember my dad getting really angry once when I made a disparaging comment about a guy doing janitorial work, saying it was "unimportant" and "something I would never do." He lit into me and told me that all work was important and that nothing is beneath us. That same day I ended up digging weeds out of the garden. As kids, my sister and I always had chores. In high school we were expected to have summer jobs.

From collecting garbage for the Municipality of Anchorage to running the honey bucket from airplanes at the ramp at Anchorage's airport, to bartending, furniture moving to cannery work, I took numerous jobs before finishing college and settling into a long career in the energy industry. Some of the jobs were not pleasant, but I always felt that what I was doing was important, and that I was privileged to be doing it. I never had a problem finding a job.

I feel bad when I hear business people complain, "good help is hard to find." It implies that strong work ethics aren't being emphasized by families and are fading in our culture. Being willing and able to work came naturally to me, and I attribute it almost entirely to my parents' influence. I was a laborer, stocked sheetrock, counted fish for the Fish and Game Department, delivered engineering supplies in a van, apprenticed under an architect for awhile, and yes, performed janitorial work.

Today I am at age when most people retire. Many of the people I went to high school with are now retired. But I continue to work because I like it. I think that if we can instill that desire in our children at an early age, we are providing them the very strongest survival skill there is- and ensuring that they will succeed in whatever they choose to do. Granted, jobs are harder to find these days but generally, if someone really wants to work, they will find it.

I realize that these columns often dwell on things that readers already know. My only interest is to reinforce those things, in that they are so important. There is a young neighbor boy who has come over to my house on a few occasions and asked if he could help me with yard work. "There's a young person," I think to myself, "who will do well in life. He's already on the right track."

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 6, 2011.