Bayer CEO Attila Molnar, 59, says he was excited to land a summer job in the chemical lab of a major company, but they didn't give him meaningful work. "It left me convinced that having a job with nothing to do may be worse than not having a job at all," he says.
USA TODAY reached out to dozens of executives who now run or once ran major corporations. Thirty-two responded, and although their ages range and they grew up diversely in big cities and rural towns, all worked as teens, eight of them before age 11. At USA TODAY's request, RiseSmart, an Internet site for jobs that pay $100,000 and up, surveyed CEOs and former CEOs of smaller companies.
Among the 37 who responded, 32 said their summer jobs were good experience. Only four said their first jobs were awful, and one said it was just a job, neither beneficial nor traumatic. Almost all earned $3 an hour or less.
Patti Moss, the 54-year-old CEO of Cascade Bancorp, picked strawberries and currants as a pre-teen on Vashon Island, Wash. Diane Irvine, 49, CEO of online fine jewelry retailer Blue Nile, grew up on an Illinois farm that raised beef cattle and chickens. Her first "outside" job was at 14 as she stood on a platform pulled by a tractor and detassled rows of corn, pulling tassels to prevent the corn from pollinating itself.
UPS CEO Davis picked pears in Medford, Ore., for $1.25 an hour, and former International Dairy Queen CEO Mike Sullivan, 72, was driven each morning from a Minneapolis YMCA to a farm when he was 12 or 13, where he picked sacks of potatoes for as much as $5 a day. Sullivan remains proud of all the first jobs provided by Dairy Queens in small towns. "Bad-mouthing of food-service jobs for young people does a great disservice," he says.
Jim Skinner, 63, is the most recent of five McDonald's CEOs who once flipped burgers for the company. Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes, 53, put in 60-plus hours a week at McDonald's, a small sacrifice for someone raised in a home with no heating and indoor plumbing. He was also a church organist.
Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia, 59, was put to work in his father's produce store at 10, but to keep officials from suspecting child-labor violations, he didn't wear a store apron. By 19, he'd sold magazines door-to-door, driven both a UPS truck and a New York City taxi, and started a career in football coaching.
Of course, CEOs usually developed an early knack for upward mobility. Gary Smith, 47, CEO of communications equipment supplier Ciena, was born in England. His first job was washing dishes, but he was soon a photographer shooting tourists at an English seaside beach resort. Curt Culver, 55, CEO of MGIC Investment, washed root beer mugs at 10 at his parents' A&W. The following year, he had proved himself good with numbers and was helping with payroll.
Chris Kearney, 52 and CEO of industrial products giant SPX, was 13 in 1968 when he made $100 a week loading trucks for the family-owned beer distributorship in Mount Pleasant, Pa., something generations of Kearney boys have done since the end of Prohibition.
Today's teens should think of every job opportunity as an important building block in life, no matter how menial it seems, Kearney says. "A successful career is built incrementally, one step at a time."