The following picture was taken about 9:00 PM during our evening break in the cafeteria at Nyack Hospital in Nyack, New York, during the summer of 1982. From left to right, these are three of my colleagues: Arnold, Ralph and Kevin. We had different job titles: Housekeeping Aide or Environmental Services Aide. Our responsibilities were primarily vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, stripping and waxing floors, cleaning stairwells, operating rooms, delivery rooms and the morgue, delivering laundry carts, taking out trash and moving furniture during internal hospital moves. Ralph had pretty much been doing the same work for years; for Arnold, Kevin and myself this job was paying for our expenses as we worked toward other goals in our career path and employment in our future.
At the time, I was attending Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York. There were also several others from both Nyack College and the seminary working in the hospital, and some working also as Environmental Services Aides. Our managers acknowledged that most of us were overqualified for the job as far as our education level, but they were genuinely glad to have us around for the time that we were there. I was probably the first and last Environmental Services Aide in that department that was fluent in ancient Greek and had read through the Iliad and the Odyssey in the original language. Yet I don’t remember any of us complaining about the work being beneath us or being trapped in a dead end job. Most of us were really glad to be able to work with one another, to get to know one another, to joke around some with each other and to be able to earn much of our support for our seminary education. Most of the time we really got along well together and worked in harmony. I know that the managers and supervisors in our department were glad for the clean and shiny floors that we were able to give them on a regular basis.
No one was under the illusion that the job that we were working at back then was going to be our career. No one was under the illusion that that job was all that we would ever do or all that we would ever be qualified to do. For myself, I viewed the job as God’s way to provide for my education and living expenses while I pursued a Master of Divinity degree. I later took up some temporary jobs when I was between pastorates, and I viewed them in the same way: as God’s way to provide for my needs at the time. During those years I could have sought a more lucrative permanent job and a career better suited to someone with a Master’s degree, but my heart was committed to the pastorate at that time, and I kept away from pursuing a permanent job when I could not give a commitment in good faith to an employer that I would do my best to stay with the job and the company for a reasonable amount of time.
Nevertheless, there are a number of lessons that transitional jobs give. I am afraid that someone who wants to go immediately into an illustrious career and a lucrative job may not understand the valuable experience that comes with these kinds of jobs. The summary description of what these jobs provide is: good work habits and marketable, transferable skills.
Transitional jobs help to develop habits of consistent attendance and punctuality.
Most of the transitional jobs on which I worked required punching a clock, and paid by the hour. Being late for work meant less take home pay, and could easily lead to a person losing his or her job. It also meant that workers learned to time their lunch breaks and scheduled work breaks carefully. The job required consistent attendance and punctuality, and a person simply learned to live his or her life around the work schedule.
Transitional jobs help to develop the habit of pulling one’s weight within a department.
The quickest way to become unpopular with one’s coworkers was to be someone who could not be relied upon to do his or her work responsibilities. Conversely, a way to become valued was to become known as someone whom others could rely on not only to do his or her share of work but to pitch in and get things done when more was required than in the job description. Work ethic mattered, since the others on the job did not like having to carry any unreliable and inconsistent coworker.
Transitional jobs help to develop habits of persistence and time management.
At the beginning of each shift the team reported to the manager, and each team member received his or her assigned task or series of tasks to be completed within the time of that shift. That was your primary responsibility during that time. So, you learned to concentrate on work during work hours to get your work done during that time. Although you could still act like a human being, greet and talk with others, you learned to save major socializing to break times and off work hours. You understood that your responsibility was to complete your assignment by the end of the shift.
Transitional jobs help to develop habits of teamwork and leadership.
One of the supervisors noted I could get the guys on the evening shift to work together on a task and get things done quickly and with pretty good spirits. What I did was simply to get enough of us together to get a task done quickly, and then let them go back to their assigned areas.
Transitional jobs help to develop habits of working with others of widely varying backgrounds.
The department at the hospital consisted of a number of Haitian immigrants, African Americans, white evangelical seminarians and college students and several others of various backgrounds. It was one of the more diverse workplaces where I had ever worked. We didn’t always understand what another person was saying clearly, and we didn’t get together outside of work much, if at all. But we learned to be considerate and helpful to each other. The Haitians especially did seem to appreciate someone trying to pronounce their names with a French accent and getting to know something about them.
Transitional jobs help to develop habits of dealing with difficult situations quickly and effectively.
Some of the cleaning problems that we would encounter from time to time were simply disgusting. A person simply learned to ignore the personal distaste, go forward, and get the task done with as few complaints as possible and without trying to get someone else to do it. Responsibility and initiative usually got the task done, and the sense of disgust usually vanished pretty quickly once it was done.
Transitional jobs help to develop habits of presenting ideas for improvement respectfully and professionally.
There was once that several of us received an assignment to strip and wax a series of white tile floors. As we looked at the floors, we saw some grayish areas, and I suggested that we add some bleach to the stripping compound. The others thought about it for a minutes, and then said that we would try it. It did help brighten the floor considerably, but it turned out to be something that we rarely did afterward because of the bleach smell while we were working. Nevertheless, we had a new idea which we could use when we might need it.
Transitional jobs help to develop habits of training others to do the same job quickly and effectively.
I was once assigned to train other summer workers in the summer of 1983. The supervisors were amazed that I could get them up to speed on some tasks quite easily. There was no secret to it: I just followed George Marshall’s old directions on training. Show them what you want done, show them how to do it, have them do it, and check back from time to time on them when they can do it for themselves.
Transitional jobs can teach the value of physical labor in itself.
The work that we performed was work that many people might have considered to be beneath them, but it fulfilled a great need in the hospital, since the infection rate in a hospital is tied to the general cleanliness of the environment. The work was not mentally challenging, since most of us who were there who had other long range career plans were definitely college material, if not already taking college courses or in graduate school. A number of us who were believers in Christ were doing this as a part of fulfilling our responsibility before God to use our gifts and talents for his glory, and most certainly we saw the greater fulfillment would be in our future as we gained our degrees, and we went elsewhere, some to more prestigious and lucrative secular jobs, some to pastorates, and some to the mission field.
For others, though, these jobs were not so much to pay for a transition to another field, but as an entry into the same general industry or profession. Not everyone wants or is suitable for a high paying white collar career; in fact for many, an adequately paying career which does not require the heavy investment of time and money in a university education will be what is more suited to their capabilities and ambitions. Moreover, a career in itself will not ultimately bring satisfaction to anyone, and for some, a high powered career may do incredible damage to their health, family life and walk with Christ. It’s noteworthy that Jesus, Peter and several of the Galilean disciples, and Paul had all worked at physical jobs – carpenter/artisan, fishermen, and tentmaker. Moreover, in these jobs, they would all have had to function as small businessmen as well, to find their own customers, negotiate their own contracts and remuneration, track their own finances, pay their own taxes, and hire and pay any employees themselves – large companies and corporations in the modern sense were practically unknown at that time.
For myself, this experience taught me the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:13 and 5:12: “That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in his toil – this is the gift of God . . . The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much.”
All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.