When he was 18, CEO David Haffner of manufacturer Leggett & Platt worked the graveyard shift at a Hercules explosives plant in Missouri.
Each night, Haffner and two others loaded 200,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate onto a railroad boxcar, one 50-pound bag at a time, hustling to finish early to squeeze in an hour of sleep at 6 a.m. before heading to classes at Missouri Southern State University. Haffner says he developed Popeye forearms making $3.86 an hour in 1971, moving enough explosive each shift to blow up 300 acres in Vietnam.
Today, Haffner, 55, runs a company with 24,000 employees. Long ago, his performance ceased to be measured by the perspiration on his brow. But hard labor was not foreign to him or to many CEOs as teens.
Jeff Rich, 47, the former CEO of Affiliated Computer, was a 13-year-old hay baler making $50 a day moving 2,000 bundles in 110-degree lofts. Tony White, 61, CEO of health care company Applera, says there may still be a footprint stain on his mother's bathtub from his job cleaning the oily soot from oil and coal furnaces in Asheville, N.C. Herman Cain, the 62-year-old former president of Godfather's Pizza, spent a summer operating a jackhammer in Atlanta.
Did they learn important lessons from the drudgery that shapes their leadership style today? Almost all say yes. If nothing else, it taught them to finish college.
"Demanding jobs motivated me to stay in school," says UPS CEO Scott Davis, 56, a former pear picker and lumber mill laborer.
But a large portion of the next generation of corporate leaders is likely to miss potential lessons of a teen's first summer job as they skip flipping burgers, washing cars, waiting tables, bagging groceries or other menial jobs that today's CEOs say had an influence on them.
The percentage of teens working this summer is expected to continue a 40-year slide. Last July, a record low 50% of 16-to-19-year-olds worked or sought jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says, down from 72% in July 1978. Outplacement consultant Challenger Gray & Christmas estimates 1.5 million 16-to-19-year-olds will be hired this summer, down from 2 million in 1999.
It's not that the jobs are drying up. The National Restaurant Association says its industry alone will add 403,000 jobs this summer. The shortfall is in the available teens. Some don't want to work. Others figure it's better to attend summer school, college-prep programs, volunteer or even run their own businesses, CEO John Challenger says.
How the bypassing of summer jobs in the spring of their careers will affect the next generation of leadership is unclear. But Software Spectrum co-founder Judy Odom, 55, all but single-handedly ran a tuxedo rental shop for minimum wage as a 17-year-old in Fort Worth, where the owner showed up at day's end to empty the cash register. She remembers placing cold calls from newspaper engagement announcements and, on weekends, acting as chief troubleshooter as the store turned frenzied with last-minute needs.
"I learned so much about business from that job, both do's and don'ts," Odom says.