Why Working as a Barista Was the Most Valuable Job Experience of My Career

Job skills
Dana Sitar poses outside of Black Crow Coffee in St. Petersburg, Fla. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

If you have a career in your sights, you’re probably focused on learning the hard skills it requires. You might be studying programming, grammar, anatomy, law or plumbing, just to name a few.

You’re likely not focusing as much on soft skills, though.

You know, the personality traits and people skills that allow you to work effectively with a team. And they’re in high demand.

Soft skills are harder to teach than hard skills, so you might not think about developing them.

Many of these skills are ones you develop on the job, not in the classroom, so work experience is valuable. But that leaves you with a conundrum: How do you ever break into a field that requires experience?

You start with an “unskilled” job.

Before starting my professional career, I spent about 10 years in food service, and about six of those as a barista. While they weren’t related to my writing career, I credit them with a lot of the job skills that make me great at my job now.

Use those jobs you use to get through college to develop soft skills early, so you’re ready to break into the job market!

Here’s how being a barista taught me some of the most in-demand soft skills.

1. Communication

Unless you plan to work by yourself, pay yourself and serve yourself, communication will be key in any career.

If you didn’t catch that, it means communication is key in 100% of career paths.

You’ll need to be able to understand information coming from your bosses, colleagues and clients. You’ll need to be able to convey information back to them, or pass it from one to another.

This sounds like basic human functioning, but it’s a real skill.

As a barista, it meant knowing what a customer wanted when they ordered “that one with the red sprinkles” or said “ventana” instead of “venti” because Starbucks speaks only in a silly mash-up language I like to call Eng-talian.

The patience and interpretation skills I learned from these across-the-counter interactions strengthened my communications muscles for my professional career.

Guiding a client through confounding edits to website content, for example, is a lot like finding just the right drink for a coffee-shop customer who asks for “something with a ton of espresso but, like, doesn’t really taste like coffee..?”

2. Organization

The low hourly pay and lack of consistency in tips might make you think baristaing isn’t a highly-skilled job. You’d be wrong.

I’ve worked at coffee shops in the mall during the holidays, on college campuses during finals and in hipster neighborhoods on open mic night. We needed some serious chops to survive the lines.

Through these crazy rushes, I learned to lean into a challenge, instead of getting mad at it. I loved figuring out how much faster we could get a drink down the line just by re-organizing the flavored syrup bottles or delegating the whipped-cream-topping to a new hire.

In a coffee shop, you organize the bar for efficiency. You organize inventory to make ordering easier. Your organize retail merchandise for sales.

And — most importantly — you organize your customers to keep everyone in line and happy.

If you don’t feel like you have enough responsibility in your position to develop this skill, offer to take on a few extra tasks. Product ordering and employee scheduling both do wonders for your organizational skills and attention to detail.

3. Teamwork

If you’ve ever been part of those aforementioned long lines, you were (hopefully) impressed with the teamwork behind the counter. Or, you knew it was sorely lacking, because you had to wait 15 minutes for your macchiato.

A proper food-service business runs with military precision. Employees respect rank and stick to their assigned stations.

If a well-meaning regional manager drops in and tries to “help” by pouring an espresso and moving onto the Frappuccino counter before punching an order into the register, they’re going to muck up the whole operation.

You stick to your place. If you need something, you communicate it to the right person. The system is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity and effectiveness.

I’ve held onto this attitude in my office job, as well.

Note: This doesn’t mean adopting a “not my job” approach. It means respecting everyone’s position and knowing how to communicate the right issues to the right people. And it means stepping in where you’re needed — for the good of the team, not your ego.

4. Punctuality

Showing up as scheduled and completing your work on time are pretty clear necessities across industries.

Punctuality is also easy to achieve and demonstrate.

Be there on time, and your boss won’t have any complaints. That bodes well for references as you move into your professional career.

5. Critical Thinking

I’m actually surprised not to see this at the top of the list of in-demand job skills. Critical thinking is a tough skill to teach and even tougher one to find in an employee.

It’s the ability to look at something objectively, ask the right questions and make a good judgement call.

In almost every job interview I’ve had, I heard this question: “Tell me about a conflict you’ve faced in the workplace. How did you resolve it?”

For many years, I shared stories of customers returning with drinks they’d clearly ordered — but didn’t like — demanding freebies or refunds I wasn’t authorized to give.

These conflicts are relatively mundane, but they challenged my young, 20-something brain to balance what a customer wanted with what I’d been taught.

Just learning to determine whether a situation warranted calling my manager was a good exercise in critical thinking.

6. Social Skills

Social skills are a subtle necessity in every workplace.

You might not notice them when they’re there, but you’ll definitely notice when they’re not.

Employers aren’t looking for extroverts or social butterflies, necessarily. But if you’re going to work and communicate effectively with a team, you need the ability to pick up and put out basic social cues.

Have you ever approached a server in a restaurant, and they tell you where the bathroom is before you even have a chance to ask? They’re reading your cues.

On the flip side, you have to know how to keep a lid on a bad mood at work. No reason to drag co-workers or customers through your latest family drama or the guy in the truck who cut you off on the way in.

Your social skills are also going to be vital in a job interview.

A potential employer has already seen your resume. This is their chance to see whether they could stand working beside you 40 hours a week.

7. Creativity

Yes, those leaf-topped lattes are wonderful works of art, but barista creativity goes well beyond that.

How much creativity you get to express depends on where you work. A corporate environment like Starbucks doesn’t leave much room for it — the company creates the recipes, dictates your uniform and hair color, and decorates the stores.

When I worked under these stringent rules, I used my creativity to streamline our workflow (see number two).

However, in a local coffee shop, you’ll find tons of little ways to be creative throughout the day.

I got to create daily drink flavors — and name them, a delightful opportunity for a good pun. I hand-lettered menu boards — visual art, not my forte…

Even if you don’t have work experience in a creative field on your resume, you can use examples like this to show potential employers what you’re capable of.

8. Adaptability

When I was a barista, coffee chains were just making the switch to fully-automatic espresso machines. All you had to do was push a button, and a perfect shot of espresso would appear.

Unfortunately, we baristas and our managers had been trained on semi-automatic machines. We knew how to grind and measure espresso beans and tamp them with just the right pressure. We didn’t know how to fix a darn thing on the new digital machines.

My first year with a new machine was fraught with breakdowns. Not me, thankfully, just the machine.

Not only did I learn to make drinks a whole new way, but I also learned how to run the cafe and keep customers happy when the core of our business was on the fritz.

Even in a seemingly boring job, you’re going to need to know how to adapt to situations just as tricky. Sharpen your chops before you get there by taking customer service challenges seriously.

9. Friendly Personality

If you’ve met a barista lately, you might not think this attribute applies.

Well, we get great at faking it.

I’ve always been a little shy, and I don’t care for most people — especially when they’re making small talk. Being a barista is so much small talk.

I had to learn to be nice.

When someone said, “Cold weather, we’re havin’,” I couldn’t reply, “Yeah. This happens every year, you bore.”

Instead, I learned to say, “Yeah, I bet your kids are enjoying the snow, huh, Wendy?” And Wendy would smile and order a scone — instead of reporting me to my manager.

Learning to be friendly with a rapid succession of strangers every day really sets you up for those moments when a co-worker catches you in the break room and shares the story of her dog’s most recent surgery.

Or you have to congratulate someone on their engagement.

This one goes a long way in a job interview, too!

Your Turn: What useful skills have you learned working “unskilled” jobs?

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).