My First “Real” Job: Part 1

My first job when I graduated from college was working as a research assistant for a license exam prep school. At that time, in California, in order to get a contractor’s license, you needed four years of experience and you had to complete a lengthy application and take two exams. One was a general exam everyone had to take that covered topics like bonding and liens. The second one was for the specific trade, for example, general contracting, plumbing or swimming pools.

The school advertised on the radio and individuals, or often, their girlfriends/wives, would call in for more information. We would tell them that the program director was out and collect all their information so he could return the call as soon as he returned. This was called “a lead.”

The program director was a sleezeball salesman whose only reason for living was the commission. If he thought we could massage the qualifications and get that guy an exam date, he would want that guy’s money. I say guy because the entire time I worked there only one woman came through the program.

Part of the big sales pitch was that if you failed the exam, you’d get your tuition refunded. The thing is, if you looked at the sign up sheet, only about 20% of what you paid was considered tuition. Everything else was admissions fee, books and materials fee, license processing fee and so forth. They also liked to give away free courses for additional licenses, say you wanted plumbing and well drilling. Few people ever returned for the additional license.

The school would prepare the license application and the student would sit through a series of taped classes and take practice exams that were created by people like me, recent college graduates who knew squat about the contracting industry. We would extract information from books about carpentry and plumbing and put them into taped classes and tests.

I don’t think one person ever asked about the source material for the classes and exams.

I actually liked the work. I liked researching new materials and working with the students and answering their questions.

The salesmen were loathsome cads. There was one guy who regularly told new students, “Stop by any time, my door is always open,” who insisted we tell students who asked for him, that he wasn’t in. Our secret nickname for him was, “the Lounge Lizard.”

If you guessed that a business owner who bases his business on hardcore sales tactics and deceptive paperwork is going to be repugnant SOB, you are exactly right. He was intimidating and unreasonable and a control freak. There was no policy for sick leave, vacation or retirement. There was some sort of health insurance that was completely worthless but he never let you forget how great he was because he didn’t have to provide that. He assumed everyone was dishonest and trying to cheat him. He scared me and I did everything I could to stay below his radar.

Because most of the students were actively working, the school’s main hours were in the evenings but no matter what time the last student was out the door, the staff could not leave until 9pm, closing time. The boss would phone at 8:47pm to check on the deposit or something. Then he’d call again at 8:58pm to remind someone to turn off the light in his office. He might ask to talk to a specific person, to make sure no one left early. So we’d all have to stand there in the lobby, holding our purses until exactly 9pm.

I later worked in the back office processing applications while the regular application processor took leave to have a baby. The application lady was obsessively organized and my work passed her rugged inspection and I hit the radar of scary boss man.

After less than one year at this job, he approached me and did this number on me where he said he knew I was smart and that I would leave eventually and would I be interested in this other opportunity he knew about. As I understood it, it would be administrative services for small business contractors. We would do their paperwork, billing, payroll, insurance type stuff and also referrals.

He wanted me to be vague about why I was leaving the company so I lied to all my nice co-workers (sorry!) and left the job.

Forgive me. I was only 24 years old and completely clueless how the world worked. Nothing about this scenario raised any red flags for me plus this new position would offer more responsibility and about a 20% pay increase. I bit.

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