‘You’ve worked in hospitality?”
“Cafes, yeah?” my girlfriend and I reply.
“I can tell by the way ye stack the plates.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve partaken in such an exchange. Usually it continues with a brief bitch about rude customers, messy tables and that one time you called someone out on it.
It’s usually a pleasant enough exchange, swapping war stories of the hospitality sector. There’s a tacit understanding between all involved.
The hierarchical relationship between server and served is flattened to create an easy and equal bond.
The exchange typically ends with one party announcing: “Everyone should work at least once in a restaurant, just to see how it is.” This is greeted by a chorus of “yes”, “absolutely” and “completely agree”.
It’s the same case for most industries that typically hire from the student pool.
I’ve just finished my degree. I now work for two companies, one of the Big Four accounting firms and a well-known Irish coffee company.
I’m 23 and I’ve had a job since I was 15. I’ve worked in hotels, restaurants and retail, selling everything from designer clothes to bikes to hipster kitsch. I’ve worked in cafes, both as a kitchen porter and a fully trained barista.
Often I worked two or three jobs at once, all while pursuing my degree and holding committee positions in several college societies. To be honest, I was busy.
The debate surrounding working whilst studying at college is an emotionally charged one that has not been given its proper airtime.
Unfortunately the debate is stymied slightly, as most of us hold the same view. In order for this debate to flourish we must invite countering ideas from those outside what could be termed the Working Student collective. Then the subject might get the attention it deserves.
Every student, regardless of economic background, should work. It is not impossible to get a job. There are thousands of opportunities in Ireland. Experience is not essential. If you have enough gumption and are willing to try, you will get a job.
Being a working student is not easy. Balancing work and college is a trudge.
I’ve spent many nights working till five in the morning finishing an essay for college after working a 12-hour shift in a hot, busy cafe.
I will admit, on those occasions I have questioned deeply, “why do I do this?”
There are, however, many reasons to work while at college. The most obvious is financial independence. Ireland has become an increasingly infantilised society; due to soaring rents, people are choosing to live at home later and later.
The numbers of people attending third-level education is increasing. The bumper period between childhood and adulthood is extending, perhaps to a worrying level.
Working to earn your own money is one part of the solution to this troubling trend. Becoming financially independent, or at least working towards it, offers students a taste of adulthood and responsibility.
Often this experience will teach the student considerably more about life than any lecture or tutorial.
The issue of an infantilised Ireland ties into the second reason to work while studying at college. The majority of students will enter college the year after their Leaving Certificate.
The student moves from early childhood through primary, secondary and tertiary education. At every point in their development they have had someone, be it a parent, teacher or lecturer, rooting for them to succeed.
While this is wonderful, and healthy to a certain degree, it is a poor preparation for the real world. The workplace is often the first time people will interact with people who do not care about them.
Sometimes a manager will shout at you. Or a customer will be rude. While these may be unpleasant encounters, they are experiences we grow and develop from.
Everyone cannot love you like your parents or care for you like a teacher. Working while studying will help you to come to terms with this.
The additional benefits of working a part-time job while at college are that it will make you a better person. It will teach you a healthy sense of humility.
This is not humility for humility’s sake, rather a sense of how to treat other people properly.
In particular, working in a cafe, bar, restaurant or retail teaches you how to be a better customer. This is a lesson everyone must learn – student and non-student.
In November I will graduate from Trinity College with a BA in English literature and history.
The two jobs I have now, good jobs with career prospects, required candidates with more skills than fluent English and opinions about Irish soldiers in the first World War.
I was hired on the strength of my work experience and a skillset I developed mostly through part-time work.
Of course there will be challenges. Some jobs will ask whether college is “really necessary. Can you not just skip your lecture and work an extra shift?”
It can be exhausting and frustrating. In the end though, it will always be worth it.
Fionn Rogan is an Irish Times reader