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Ben Carson: Getting to the top by starting at the bottom

The lessons learned in youth jobs can pay off later. I vividly remember as a teenager obtaining my first job with a regular paycheck as a high school biology-laboratory assistant. It’s hard to describe how excited I was to be receiving a salary and contributing to the upkeep of my family’s household, but the biggest thrill was doing something important while at the same time acquiring many skills that would prove useful in the future.

Through the kindness and interest of my high school science teachers, I gained great familiarity with many scientific techniques that enabled me to acquire a job in the science laboratory at a well-known university while I was still a high school student. I was competing with college students for this job, but I had an advantage of experience, which worked in my favor.

I held a long list of different types of jobs as I was growing up. I think each of them provided valuable skills that I might not otherwise have acquired. When I worked as a mailroom clerk, I learned the importance of accuracy and speed, as well as organization. One minor error upstream could have many negative ramifications downstream; meaning, no job is too small and no detail too minor not to require the utmost in attention and devotion.

The job market in America is quite challenging today, and it is well known that in most states, an individual can collect as much if not more from food stamps, housing subsidies and health care subsidies than he can by working a minimum-wage job. If one is only interested in being sustained, accepting many forms of public aid makes a great deal of sense. However, if the goal is to pursue the American dream, taking even minimum-wage jobs makes even more sense. Between high school and college, I worked as a payroll office clerk receiving barely more than minimum wage, but I learned a great deal about office machines and many of the intricacies of making sure that people were paid on time.

When I worked as a student assistant to the police department while in college, I had the opportunity to meet many distinguished and well-known people from around the world and was exposed to things that I would never have seen otherwise. When I worked as a supervisor for a highway cleanup crew, I learned a great deal about managing people who were not necessarily eager to work. Also, through relationships that I developed with my supervisors, I was able to obtain a much higher-paying factory job the next summer that eventually led to my dream summer job of driving very fancy, new sports cars off the assembly line. There were many other jobs and many other opportunities and skills that were acquired, but the main point is that working leads to the acquisition of knowledge, experience, relationships and opportunities to move up, all of which are important components of realizing the American dream.

Some people will say that they agree with all of this, but that it is irrelevant because people cannot find jobs. I can remember people saying that about Detroit in the early 1970s when I would return home and attempt to find a summer job amid exaggerated reports of the paucity of summer jobs for college students. Most of the students trying to find jobs were looking at want ads and posters with little or no success. I was almost always able to find a job without a great deal of effort by jumping on the bus and just traveling until I reached a location populated with many small businesses. I would start knocking on doors and letting the business owners or supervisors know that I was a college student home for the summer looking for a job. This was almost always successful because many of the small businesses did not have an advertising budget but were delighted to see an industrious, young college student looking for a job. The salary wasn’t always the greatest to begin with, but I received frequent raises as I became more valuable to my employers.

This is the hidden bonus of working. If you are a good worker who is highly productive and become valuable, the employer would be foolish not to make every attempt to retain your services. Employers are often looking for people who can move up the chain of command and accept some of the responsibility for running and enhancing the company. None of these opportunities will come to your door looking for you if you are only subsisting on public entitlements.

I fully understand the uncertainty of the economic environment in which we live, but those with resources should do all they can to support and encourage young people who are stepping out in faith — frequently for the first time — looking for a job. Even a part-time job can lead to the acquisition of important skills. The more we groom our youth for success, the more we secure the future of our nation and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.

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Posted: December 3, 2013 Tuesday 11:00 PM