Several Famous People Held This Trying Summer Job

fromWPLN

What do Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Star, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have in common? They all spent summers in college selling books door to door with the Southwestern Company, a publisher in Nashville that started selling Bibles in 1855 — when Tennessee was the southwestern U.S. In what researchers are calling the worst summer job market since World War II, Southwestern can never have enough workers.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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It's been a tough couple of years for people who've been looking for summer jobs. But even the most desperate college student might pass up this situation. Door to door book sales, 13 hours a day, six days a week and no guaranteed paycheck. But it is a summer job that some now famous people have endured, including politicians and a big named prosecutor.

From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer has this story about the Southwestern Company.

BLAKE FARMER: Pedro Vega loves his job. Or at least he tries to convince himself he does.

Mr. PEDRO VEGA: I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job. I love my job.

FARMER: Driving down a winding Tennessee road, this recent Texas A&M grad pumps himself up for the next stop. Post It notes of Southwestern slogans and famous quotes are scattered on the dashboard. One says: Successful people form a habit of what unsuccessful people aren't willing to do. How about working through lunch?

Today, it's bologna and white bread. Still chewing, Vega pulls in a driveway. He hops out of the car and sprints to the front door with his bag of book samples. Then he says a little prayer.

Mr. VEGA: Day by day, day by day, day by day, day by day and everywhere by the grace of God, Lord, I'm getting better and better, getting better and better.

FARMER: Southwestern's door-to-door sales started out with Bibles. That was shortly after the Civil War. Former Confederate soldiers hiked from one plantation to the next trying to make money for college. The company left religion for homework help books.

Now moms like Kathy Barrett get a pitch about investing in their child's education. And then comes the price.

Ms. KATHY BARRETT: You know, I completely agree with the whole investment part. But if you're asking me, can I hand you 460 bucks today? No.

FARMER: The job is a 10-week lesson in rejection. Sellers do well to get two yeses a day, which is why they're instructed to sit down with at least 30 families between sun up and sun down. Talk to enough people, someone will buy.

Unidentified Group: The solution to every problem is behind the next door.

FARMER: The Southwestern sales force trains in Nashville for one week at the start of the summer. Before scattering around the U.S., they learn self-motivation techniques. They also role play, negotiating with customers who say they don't have the money.

Ms. ANNA LEE: I won't cash the check until next month. If that works better for you, Mrs. Jones.

FARMER: Anna Lee from Vancouver, Canada, is just one in this year's 2,500 salespeople. Many were recruited from their college campuses after hearing who else spent their summers this way - Texas Governor Rick Perry, Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, and Christian author Max Lucado. Dan Moore did his time. He's now the CEO who gives the final send off, which is a warning.

Mr. DAN MOORE (President, Southwestern Company): Just before you knock, a truck will come out of the driveway and there's a bunch of people your age, guys and girls, and they've got towels and they've got their bathing suits on and they're laughing and listening to music and they're going to go off to the lake and have a really good time.

FARMER: Don't go, Moore says. Any activity unrelated to sales is strongly discouraged, even calling home during the work week. That's what Sundays are for.

Mr. MOORE: A person makes money according to the results they get.

FARMER: Moore says students essentially run their own business, which means they bear all of the risk.

Mr. MOORE: We are a wholesaler. So the money they make is the difference between what they sell it for and what they are charged for it.

FARMER: Three in ten don't make it past the first few weeks, and they often leave with hard feelings. Some share stories at SouthwesternCompanytruth.com, calling the company everything from a cult to a scam. Students can lose money in the venture. And, of course, some just can't take the heat and the dogs.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

FARMER: With a yapper at his heels, Pedro Vega says it doesn't both him. The potential for a big payout does make the hazards more manageable. Vega took home $22,000 as a rookie and now makes more, with salespeople working under him. Beyond money, he says the job has made him an emotional giant.

Mr. VEGA: I'm not like most people. Most people are miserable and they're sad. They're depressed. They don't care. So I'm going to be one of the coolest people Mrs. Jones is going to meet probably the entire summer, but I'm definitely going to be the coolest person she meets today.

FARMER: And there are still more Mrs. Joneses to see with a few weeks left in the Southwestern selling season.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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