What was the hardest manual labor job I’ve ever had?

What was the hardest manual labor job I’ve ever had?

I was a “Picker” for a large supermarket chain in their warehouse on the second shift. What’s a “Picker”? I Picker was a position that would take an order from one of the grocery stores that used our warehouse, and I would drive around on a pallet jack and physically pick all the cases and items going to that store on a semi-truck.

A pallet jack isn’t a Hi-Lo, it’s more like a “Lo-Lo” it held two wood pallets, just off ground-level and the goal was to build those pallets up to six-eight feet, wrap them tightly in plastic shrink wrap, and then load them onto the truck. Some orders took 15 minutes to fill, some took over an hour, every single one was different.

The warehouse was giant. Like ten football fields with aisle after aisle of products, you would find in a large grocery store. Some heavy, some light, all shapes, and sizes. It was a Union shop, but I was a temp summer worker. So, most of the workers were full-time, long-term Union workers, over 90% men. My Dad was an executive in the offices of this company. A family friend was the Union Steward in the warehouse.

This job taught me that I didn’t want to work manual labor my entire life! 

But, it also taught me to respect the true value of manual labor jobs.

It also taught me so much about life, work, and fitting in on the job:

  • Instantly the union guys knew my Dad was in management, and boy did I catch sh*t for that! I quickly learned to have tough skin and you better give back as well as you were getting in that environment.
  • About a month into this job I came home at 2 am and woke up my Dad crying telling him I was going to college (Yes! Crying. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but it was memorable!). It was physically hard! It was hot. It was dirty. I didn’t want to go back in. I was working next to guys who had been doing that job for twenty-plus years!
  • A Union-shop has formal and informal rules. To survive you must quickly learn the informal rules or you won’t last. I was told specifically to slow down my work pace or all four tires of my car would be slashed. Even though I wasn’t even making rate and all the full-time union guys ran circles around me!
  • After you filled an order you had to go get another. There was one lady who did this, behind a glass window in an air-conditioned office. You could feel the cold air through the hole in the glass. Very quickly you learned there were easy orders and hard orders, and orders you could more easily make “rate” on. The lady was a big girl, normal looking, middle-aged, to see all of us guys sweet up to her like she was a runway model trying to get easy orders, boy that was a site! Always be super nice to the person doling out the work!
  • You need to find your tribe. I wasn’t the only summer temp, college kid, there were a bunch of us and we found early on it best we stick together. We ate lunch together, found each other on breaks, helped each other when we could. The union guys weren’t going to help.
  • Hard-ass manual labor jobs are marathons, not sprints. We worked 8-hour shifts, but almost every night had to do mandatory 2-4 hours of overtime. They wouldn’t tell us if we were working or not, because if you knew you had to work 12 hours that night, you were not working fast!
  • I was 18, the legal drinking age in Michigan was 21. After our shift on payday, all the guys would go to a bowling alley down the street that was open until 2 am. They would cash our checks and let us drink like men. Young guys would be drunk after two beers and the union guys would take the summer guys’ cash when they were in the bathroom and give it to the waitresses! Always keep your cash in your pocket!
  • Second-shit sucks! You go in around 3 pm, if you’re lucky you get out at 11 pm or midnight. Go home, can’t sleep, finally, get down around 3 am, wake up at noon the next day and basically start it all again.
  • Union or Non-Union manual labor shops are really going to test you. The fact is, they want to work with people who are going to work. Really work! If you don’t carry your weight, eventually it will come back to more work on everyone. So, they push you to try and quit because they only want people around them that really want to be there or have to be there, but show up and work!
  • I had so much fun at that job with probably the most diverse workforce I’ve ever been in. We were all in the middle of it and equally giving each other sh*t constantly. All of which would have gotten us all canceled and fired today. It was in many ways a brotherhood. What happened on the floor, stayed on the floor. Very much workers vs. management.

I think every single kid, male and female, right after high school, but for sure before they graduate college should have to work a manual labor job. Too many kids come into the work world with this warped perception of what work is, and too many look down on the millions of workers truly busting their backs doing the work you don’t want to do.

At the very least, I would prefer to hire a kid with a solid degree from a state school who I know worked a manual job or two in their life, then a perfect student from Harvard who never got dirty. Our society has in so many ways devalued ‘real’ hard work, manual labor, no-skill, low-skill.

What was that hardest manual labor job you ever worked?