When Derek Kernus failed to land a summer internship at a big company, the College of William & Mary student responded to an ad in the paper for an admittedly unusual job. Now he's spending the summer traipsing through the homes of friends, neighbors and strangers – armed with carrots and rope – selling stainless-steel kitchen knives.
It might sound odd at best, nightmarish if you're shy – and a far cry from an elite internship at an investment bank, law firm or media company. But, say many an alum of the knife-hawking business, the skills and experience you need to boost your resume and land a job postgraduation can be found in the quirky summer job.
The knife company in question is Cutco Cutlery, an Olean, N.Y., manufacturer with $198 million in revenue, according to Sarah Baker Andrus, director of academic programs for Vector Marketing, Cutco's sales arm. Andrus says the company brings in 60 percent of its sales over the summer, when a force of 40,000 – 85 percent of whom are students – fan out to ply their wares.
These junior salespeople don't receive an hourly or weekly wage. Instead they earn a commission that starts at 10 percent and can climb to more than 50 percent for top sellers. Andrus says students who work the whole summer earn an average of $3,000 to $5,000. But there are plenty who earn more.
Students around the country earn money every summer hawking books, makeup, pet supplies and other goods via rehearsed demonstrations in their own homes or those of their customers. It's tough work – even those who are successful at it say so.
“It's not for everyone, but people who go through the process are better for it,” says Larry Curran, a managing director for Garrett Sayer Group, a staffing firm in Parsippany, N.J.
Curran made $5,000 selling Cutco knives in 1989, between semesters at Eastern Connecticut State University. But he and others who have done it say that it provides a more marketable experience than other fallback jobs.
John Williams, 34, who now does research and consulting in Cincinnati for a technology-oriented think tank, sold Cutco knives in the summer of 1992 before he entered Northwestern University. “It was a unique and, in some ways, unnatural experience,” he recalls. “You have to go into someone's home and quickly gain their trust.”
But in the process, Williams says, he learned how to market himself and his product, make presentations and respond to questions, adjust to new and unexpected situations, and quickly connect with people. “You also learn about integrity and following through,” he notes.
These are skills Williams says he has touted in every job search he's conducted and used every job he's worked in. What's more, he and others say, the experience has caught the eye of recruiters and interviewers.
Asher Abraham also has fond memories of his Cutco years. He sold the knives throughout his four years at Queens College, in New York, and earned more than $100,000 one year, and he learned a lot in the process, he says.
“The first time my (Cutco) manager asked me to speak at a weekly meeting, I thought, ‘Who, me? Talk to everybody? No way,'” he recalls. But he did it; and after doing it over and over, it became second nature, he says. He graduated in 2006 and left Cutco a year later for a job at Liberty Mutual, selling commercial insurance.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car, based in St. Louis, recruits several thousand new grads into its management training program every year, according to Marie Artim, assistant vice president for recruiting. The company has hired numerous Cutco alumni over the years, and hiring managers look for the experience.
“We've found that the job can give people the things we look for,” she says. “Things like communication skills, discipline and a work ethic, knowledge of customer service, sales and marketing, and the ability to work on your own.”
Gary Brulez, an executive recruiter with Corporate Personnel & Associates in Kansas City, Mo., says that the Cutco experience gives college kids basic “real-world” skills that they often don't learn until later in life.
Associates get training and support during the summer, a boost since sellers – like Kernus, who has already sold $32,000 of cutlery – lay out their own cash and earn only commission.