How working in high school helped Matt excel in his career

By: Maggie Shui Wednesday 31 August 2016




In Year 12, Matt worked three part-time jobs. While he didn’t realise it at the time, his high school work experience proved vital when it came time to pursue his career in electrical engineering. Now, Matt’s a project manager at Transpower, overseeing engineers, builders and various workers involved in projects relating to electric power transmission in New Zealand.

What on earth compelled Matt to take on so much work in Year 12 when we know high school is enough work already? Did his jobs interfere with his school life? And how did Matt’s work experience differentiate him from his peers who were vying for the same career opportunities?


Why Matt decided to take on 3 jobs in high school

In Year 12, Matt was working the seafood counter at Countdown, a merchandising job with a 4 a.m. start, and at Hong Kong Horse Takeaways, a “part-time job” that Matt scored when he was nine because he knows the owners (they’re his parents).

Matt’s entry into part-time work was instigated by his parents who thought “getting out there into the workforce early was good.” The decision to take it further and work three jobs at once, however, was all Matt. What motivated him to take on a 4 a.m. job stocking bottles of coke?

“Money was the main driver. I got addicted to the money and the freedom of not having to ask my parents for it.”

As it turns out, the money was green and Matt was in. “When you’re a student, you’re poor and you want to do things for yourself,” says Matt. In Year 12, he was thinking about the immediate gratifications of working and earning money. The long-term implications, both negative and positive, didn’t reveal themselves until later.


Burnout: Trying to figure out what’s more important – work or school

Unsurprisingly, trying to handle three jobs and all that Year 12 entails (grades, relationships, getting enough sleep) proved to be overkill. Time after school was spent helping out at Hong Kong Horse Takeaways and those weekend 4 a.m. starts meant Matt spent the remainder of the day catching up on sleep.

“In Year 12, I was working full weekends. I was just tired all the time, falling asleep in class, that kind of thing. It’s quite a big jump from IGCSE to A Level as well so that was an added challenge.”

So, when asked how he managed work and grades, the simple answer was: he didn’t. Matt underperformed in his A Level exams, nearly costing him his entrance into engineering at the University of Auckland.

“It was my lowest point. Lots of stress and sleepless nights. I’d realised too late that everything had become unmanageable. When you find yourself studying late at night, trying to catch up with everything, then you know things are going wrong.”

Those A Level results were the wake-up call Matt needed to gain some perspective. He saw his mistake in letting money be the singular motivator to work part-time. “It was a realisation for me. Working multiple jobs was not worth it if I was just doing it for the money. The money I made in high school was going to be so minimal compared to if I studied hard and made it in the future.”


Finding a balance

The following year, Matt approached work and school differently. Matt’s A level results left a big dent on his chances of getting into engineering. After crunching the numbers and figuring out what he needed to achieve in Year 13 to gain entrance into his dream degree, he knew he had to drop that 4 a.m. merchandising job.

“I kicked that one out because it was the one that tired me the most.” However, a renewed focus on his grades didn’t mean he was going to drop part-time work completely. “Crucially, I kept up the Countdown job—and helping out at the takeaways because I had no choice. But that sort of reduced when I told my parents, look, I need time to study and they were understanding.” 

All this opened up chunks of time each week to dedicate towards bumping up those grades. On judgement day, Matt got into engineering by the skin of his teeth.


How high school jobs helped Matt in his career

It was only after high school that Matt discovered how much his high school work experience would help him in his career. His first realisation of its true benefit, beyond the extra pocket money and independence, was when he talked to interviewers at university career fairs.

“That’s when you get to practice that sort of thing. When I asked interviewers for feedback, they would always say ‘It’s good to see that you’ve done something, that you have something substantive to show.’ They say they wouldn’t hire someone that was just a stay at home type and didn’t do anything outside of study. That was when I realised, oh okay, so grades aren’t everything.”

This advantage became even more apparent when it came to real job interviews. Like most people, Matt often found interviewers asked him to describe challenges he’d faced and how he overcame them. And coincidentally, as Matt says, “you’ll always have challenges in the workplace.” Matt’s substantial high school work experience gave him a wealth of relevant and concrete examples to talk about and demonstrate his skills.

“Otherwise you’d have nothing to talk about during interviews,” says Matt. “I find a lot of times in interviews these days I’ve talked about my experiences of when I was working during high school. They’re still relevant and helpful.”


How high school jobs helped Matt fulfil his Engineering degree requirements

Because doing four years of engineering papers is not hard enough, in order to graduate with an Engineering degree at the University of Auckland, you also need to rack up 800 hours of practical work experience. This includes both “general work” to familiarise yourself with your chosen field, and “sub-professional work” which involves greater expertise and responsibility. This means that Matt needed to find two different engineering related jobs in order to graduate.

“If you ask any current engineering student at uni, I am certain they’ll tell you this is what they are struggling with the most – finding a job and getting those hours to graduate.” It was indeed stressful for Matt and his engineering friends, but this is where that high school work experience kicked in.

“My high school jobs were completely unrelated to engineering. But, the key skills I gained like communication, teamwork, multi-tasking, and the fact that I had work experience at all, put me in a good position to find engineering-related work as a uni student.”

With that experience under his belt, Matt landed positions shadowing an electric fitter and designing LED lightbulbs and fittings to fulfil the work experience component of his degree. In turn, those undergraduate jobs would go on to help Matt land his dream graduate job. “Your first job won’t be your dream job,” says Matt, “but it’s part of the baby steps towards your dream job.”


Develop your confidence

Matt was a shy boy when he entered the workforce at the ripe old age of nine. At Hong Kong Horse Takeaways, Matt’s role involved taking orders and talking to customers. “I wasn’t really comfortable talking and meeting new people,” says Matt. Working the seafood counter at Countdown meant he was put into the uncomfortable situation of talking to new people even more.

Eventually, however, it became a comfortable situation for Matt. Now an adult and a working professional, Matt feels he owes a lot to those years working with customers. “It really taught me that mindset for interacting with customers. And that helped me cultivate the confidence to get out there and talk about things.” As a project manager, that wealth of practice with customer interaction jumpstarted the development of skills that he now uses every day.


The bottom line: separate yourself from the pack

So what’s the deal? Working in high school hugely benefitted Matt’s future career and self-development, but it also nearly ruined his chances of studying engineering. The key, as always, is balance. Don’t overdo it like Matt did in Year 12, but definitely do something.

Matt recommends taking on one part-time job. “One job’s enough. Having multiple jobs doesn’t really add to anything and isn’t worth sacrificing time you could put towards school and other commitments. As long as you have one job that you’re actively participating in, that you can put on your CV, somewhere where you can go out and meet new people, then that’s all you need.”

While Year 12 really put Matt through the wringer, Matt’s thankful for the experience and to his parents for that initial push.

“It was after high school that I realised you need to differentiate yourself from other people. If you’re in a class and everyone’s studying the same thing, what’s the thing that’s going to separate you from someone else? Why would someone hire you other than someone else? That’s what went through my mind when I began applying for positions. So I’m glad I did something in high school.”


Got questions about high school, uni, careers, whatever? We wanna hear from you at community@mytuition.nz