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Why a Bowling Pin Boy Beats an MBA

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Millennials are getting a bad reputation for helicopter parents, ADD and lack of commitment at work. Plenty of Millennials disprove that stereotype. However, almost every employer and manager I speak with – some Millennials themselves – worry aloud about the work ethic and engagement of this generation as a whole.

In Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Steven Kurutz neither laments his own humble work history nor regales us with his arduous first job, when he was working as a pin boy in the bowling alley of his rural Pennsylvania hometown. In the 1990s for $5 an hour plus tips, this is the job:

“To perform the job of pin boy, you sat perched above a pit on a wooden bench, hidden behind a latticework of machinery. As the ball thundered down the lane, you waited for the crack and jumped into the pit. Then, in a series of movements as fast — and nearly as well choreographed — as a Nascar tire change, you grabbed the scattered pins, placed them in their corresponding slots on the pinsetter, picked up the ball and pushed it down an iron track back to the bowler.”

By happenstance, my great uncle Jerry also worked as a pin boy, before he joined the Navy toward the end of WWII. He was a New York City high school student studying avionics. There wasn’t pay for pin boys then, just tips from the bowlers.

For the rest of his life, Uncle Jerry always held a job where he was paid for performance. He always worked hard and loved work. He was meticulous about keeping records. Plus, he could have become a pro-bowler, he was that good, but he didn’t like the potential earnings. When he moved to Southern California, he played football on Sundays with Elvis, would have been a movie star if stage fright didn’t overcome him, and married Miss Hungary, who was a Miss World finalist. Of all the great stories Uncle Jerry tells about his life, some of the funniest and most inspiring are about jumping around the bowling alley putting up pins, and avoiding being knocked out or badly bruised by incoming balls and flying pins.

Kurutz writes that his hometown still has the same setup in the bowling alley, and the pin boys do the same job, and take home the same money he did. The pay is the only thing that stinks about the story.

What’s amazing is that high school boys or girls putting up pins and dodging danger in the pits today, can grow up to be a top apparel executive like my uncle Jerry, a New York Times reporter like Steven Kurutz, or if I am lucky: someone who works for me.

That’s the Millennial I want to hire, as do lots of other executives and business owners. I want to hire individuals who know that sweat is a sign of strength. Who think and move fast. Who knows laboring in the background to make things right in the front of the house is a great job on the road to future success.

When you put together your work history – not your resume or LinkedIn profile – but your actual working life: try to find a job that shows you can sweat, pick up heavy items, or do repetitive tasks with speed and verve.

I could easily turn down an Ivy League MBA for employment. But a pin boy or girl? You have an unbeatable competitive advantage.

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