We here at MEL believe there’s value in working a terrible job. That’s why, instead of writing about how people obtained and thrived at their dream gig, we’ve set out to here about the worst jobs people have ever worked.
Our first installment was from Eric Franchi, who was a Boiler Room-style salesman for telecom giant WorldCom a few years before the company filed for the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
And our second comes from 32-year-old Detroit resident Aaron Armstrong. Armstrong loves his current job at Solar Array Solutions, where he manages solar panel installation projects. His worst job ever also involved installation: For six long months, Armstrong worked as an installer on behalf of a large telecom provider, setting up people’s homes with internet and cable access.
Working as a customer service representative for a telecom provider and having to field angry calls from disgruntled customers all day must be miserable. But as Armstrong’s experience shows, having to engage those customers face-to-face can be worse, even if you’re just there to give them HBO.
Aaron Armstrong, 32, Detroit
Current Job: Project manager, Solar Array Solutions
Worst Job Ever: Service technician for a telecom installation company (2006)
How I got in
A guy I went to high school was a supervisor for a cable installation company, and he hired me. I was in the IT program at Lawrence Tech, a prestigious engineering and architectural university in Michigan, and it was very expensive. I took the job because I ran out of money, basically.
I didn’t work for the telecom company directly. Rather, the telecom company would contract us to handle its service requests, and we had to execute those orders. The base pay was $13 an hour, but there was a heavy incentive structure. We were paid extra for each outlet, cable box and internet modem we installed. If you did lots of installations, your wage could be as high as $21 per hour.
Unfortunately, the incentive structure didn’t apply to repairing existing customers’ internet and cable access, which is largely why the job was so terrible.
When I realized it was going to suck
There was a heavy “pay your dues” culture to the place. The guys who had been there a while got all the installation jobs, which was where all the money was. The new guys got the “trouble calls” — people who were having problems with their cable or internet.
There was no incentive to actually fix people’s problems, though. The company give you an hour to complete each repair, and didn’t compensate you for any work done after the hour was up. You need to do one repair to per hour to stay at your base wage.
But generally speaking, a repair is more than an hour’s worth. Addressing the problem often requires rerunning the outlet, replacing the cable box of installing an amplifier, and that could be two hours’ worth of work. And when that happens, your pay per hour drops. Have a lot of those, your pay can dip near minimum-wage levels.
A lot of times, if a service technician knew the repair would take more than hour, he’d get the cable or internet working for 30 minutes, knowing he didn’t solve the problem long-term. Then he’d convince the homeowner to sign off on the job and leave the repair for the next service guy.
This meant walking into homes where “repairs” had been done several times, to no effect, and the homeowners would be furious with you. “This is the third time you’ve been out here!” they’d yell. And then I’d calmly reply, “Hey, I’m here now. And I’m trying to fix it.”
I worked two areas: one lower- to middle-class neighborhood, and another that was upper-class, with lots of auto industry executives.
The people in the lower- and middle-class area were reasonable. The upper-class people were entitled. You’d walk in and spend the first 20 minutes getting yelled at and trying to calm them down. There were quite a few times I dealt with someone’s personal assistant, which was easier because they would run interference between me and the homeowner.
I found it’s easier to deal with someone yelling at you if you give them free cable. Back then, the standard cable box delivered you all 99 cable channels. If people bought a package that gave them only internet, or only 20 cable channels, the installer was supposed to put on a filter that blocked out the cable channels. But most times I wouldn’t install the filters, and the customer would get the whole package.
People offered me tips for this, usually in the form of drugs or booze.
How I got out
Once it hit four or five months into the job, I started getting real negative. For one, it was 10 hours a day, six days a week, with no lunch breaks. I dreaded going there every day. I did lose a bunch of weight, though. That was the only good thing.
One day I just called my friend and, “Hey, man. I’m sorry.” And I quit. He understood. The amount of turnover was tremendous; there was a new guy there every week.
The worst part about the job was we were set up for failure. There was no reason for us to actually fix problems, and if we did, we were the ones who suffered. The risk was entirely on us, and not our employer or the telecom provider (like it should have been).
The job taught me I wanted to make a living with my mind, and not my back. When you work a job that’s a burden to wake up and go to every day, it gives you an appreciation for a job you do like. Even though your new job may be challenging at times, you have perspective. Hey, at least I’m not out there climbing utility poles in the dead of winter, getting yelled at by rich people every day.
Just know that if a service technician comes to your home, they’re just a person there to a job like anyone else. Also, if you really want your problem taken care of, say you’re going to complain to your state public services commission. That will shoot you straight to the top of the list.