Dawn Johnson’s First Job

Dawn Johnson learned the value of teamwork and a positive attitude in a most unusual place: a chicken hatchery! In this post, she reflects on the what she discovered at her first job.

* * *

Most of us remember our first car, or our first kiss, or our first date. The “first” I remember most vividly is my first job, at the Central Kansas Hatchery.

I started working at the Hatchery at age 14, and maybe one of the reasons I remember it so well is the improbability of my love for the place. I still cringe when I think of the smell of rotten eggs, or the stench of baked-on feces, or the sight and smell of decaying dead baby birds piled high by the dumpsters. But I kept coming back every summer through my first year of college, and today I look back on those experiences with the fondest of memories.

I was paid minimum wage—a whopping $2.35 per hour. Along with a few other high-school students, I was there to take on whatever assignment came our way. We worked alongside many full-time adults who had been there every day for years. They were lovely, hard-working, trustworthy folks.

While the tasks and assignments were not glamorous, and the pay was not going to make anyone wealthy, the combination of the type of people, the type of work, and the collective teamwork and sense of togetherness was unbeatable. De-toeing chicks and washing dirty plastic hatch-boxes, I learned at a very early age that happiness doesn’t come from the type of work you do, or the assignment you are given, or how much or how little you get paid. What really drives results and personal satisfaction in a work environment is the people, the pride in being part of a team.

I credit those experiences with my business success. My time at the Hatchery taught me the value of hard work. It helped mold my people, management, and leadership skills by showing me how a job of drudgery can be transformed into something worthwhile.

Remembering My First Job, By Dawn Johnson

Many individuals have fond memories of their very first jobs, usually a position at an ice cream store, a mechanic’s shop, or helping out with the family business. My first job was working at the Central Kansas Hatchery, a turkey and chicken hatchery and processing plant, during my summer vacations. The work was smelly, uncomfortable, and often disturbing, as many of the tasks required cleaning up feces or lopping off the toes of newly hatched birds to prevent them from scratching each other.

However, there was something satisfying about getting down to business and working without complaint–as the full-time adult employees had been doing for years. My favorite assignment was “wash day”, which directly followed hatch day, and required cleaning up boxes that had contained the baby chicks using a large industrial machine. What I liked most about wash days was the water fights between co-workers, and the fact that the manager didn’t scold us for having a little fun. She must have realized we needed something to break up the monotony of sending box after box through the conveyor belt!

Dawn Johnson, a former financial and insurance executive at USAA, now runs her own consulting company in San Antonio, Texas.