CLEVELAND -- It's summer and if you're at the beach, you might be wondering why the lifeguards look so old.
No, it's not that you're getting younger. It's that fewer teen-agers than ever are taking summer jobs. Beaches and state parks have had to call back ex-lifeguards and offer them $10 to $15 an hour to scan the surf. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 62 percent of people ages 16 to 19 are working this summer, the lowest percentage since the bureau started keeping records 1948.
With the economy booming, parents are choosing to send their kids to specialized camps or summer schools so they can work on their academic resumes rather than work the cash registers at retail stores. Which, in my opinion, is a real shame because kids from middle- and upper-income families need internships in life more than they need another resume-enhancing experience at science camp.
Real life is big right now -- and not just on TV. The Harvard Business School will send more than 20 percent of its MBA candidates to Silicon Valley this year to get real world or, in this case, virtual world, experience interning at dot-coms.
You know the book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? Well, I'm working on a book called "All I Really Need to Know I Learned Selling Shoes in High School."
Let me share with you a few of the highlights, not necessarily in order of importance. First, you can stretch a D to feel like an E but not a Triple E. Second, you can't sell someone something he or she doesn't want.
For example, when I sold shoes at an urban store in the 1970s, most white males over 60 just didn't want alligator shoes with stacked heels. Today, in business school that's called psychographic profiling. I also learned that when someone's ready to buy, you have to shut up and let them.
For $1,500, you could sign up for a seminar called "Closing the Sale." Shutting up is one of the things you'd learn. Another pearl of wisdom I received was that you can always tell a Jewish neighborhood by the high number of Chinese restaurants. My fellow salesman were semi-retired shoe clerks, most of them Jewish, many of them immigrants or sons of immigrants. They taught me the Chinese restaurant rule and also this one: If a guy's hands are in his pockets, he won't buy anything. Don't bother approaching him. That's called prospecting leads.
But the most important thing I learned is that America is filled with heroes. And I don't mean war heroes or sports heroes. Those I knew about already.
I mean men like the men I sold shoes with. Men who came to America with nothing -- not even a grasp of the language -- and worked their way, if not to the top, then to the middle. To a place where they could see enough of this country to figure out how it worked. They taught me real politics -- the politics of the checkbook. Not the values-based kind my more affluent parents practiced. They showed me that you could still have dignity while forcing a size 12 on the foot of a 300 pound guy who insists he doesn't need a 13.
Maybe I should have known all this. I had read Horatio Alger. I knew about the melting pot and the American Dream. But I was 16. I knew what I could touch, not what I could read. And I could touch these guys.
They were peers to me, co-workers. They were the first adults who granted me adult status. They told me about the problems they had raising kids. I heard it for the first time from the other side. They gave me advice, and since I didn't have to follow it, mostly I did.
They were my first real teachers, and there are millions of these mentors out there in every neighborhood in the country. Some escaped from Vietnam, some escaped from the projects, some hid in a truck crossing from Mexico, some have spent generations mixing in the melting pot, some are your grandmother's age and some are wise beyond their years.
But they are waiting for every kid who takes a summer job. They don't know it. And the kids don't know it. And that's the beauty of it.
Jim Sollisch is a writer living in Cleveland.