I’ve been reading a lot lately about how companies like McDonald’s need to pay their workers a “living wage” that they can support a family on, and I’ve always disagreed with that. Not because I didn’t feel for the people who were trying to support families on a McDonald’s paycheck, and not because I’m totally callous toward the poor and the working poor. Quite the contrary, I believe that we should do more to help them, and that we’ll be a better society as a result.
No, my reason for disagreeing is very simple: I know from my years working there myself that McDonald’s is a “trained monkey job.” Really. It doesn't require you to have any skills that are worth $18/hour. It’s a beginner's job, where you learn the skills that you’ll need to keep other jobs in the future. True, most people will not go on to work for McDonald’s corporate, or to own their own franchise. Most people will never need to know what order to put the condiments on a Big Mac in their later lives, but it does teach you about showing up on time, working with others, and following directions without talking back.
Minimum wage jobs like those at McDonald’s were never designed to be jobs that a person could support a family on. With the exception of the managers, they were supposed to be jobs that teenagers and housewives worked for spare cash. They were flexible jobs that you could work while taking classes or while the kids were in school.
But there’s something else that I forgot about, that helps to make my point. It’s important to keep in mind, and we forget these days, that there were other jobs back then that paid good money. There were factory jobs where a person with only a high school education could work their way up and make good money…enough to support a family on. McDonald’s was always considered “chump change,” but good enough for the teenager saving up for his own car, or for spending money.
Then those other jobs went away, and McDonald’s was all that was left for people with no education or special training. They’re still paying what they’ve always paid, and now everyone’s getting on their case for not paying a living wage, or saying that the minimum wage needs to be increased so that a person could support a family on a McDonald’s paycheck.
Wrong. What needs to happen is for there to be jobs that are worth the living wage that would be paid to people. And believe it or not, according to an NPR piece from June 2011, a lot of them are out there, going begging for people to take them. The problem is that they all require some level of education or training after high school, or special training during high school. And I suspect that the people at McDonald’s who are trying to support families are heavily weighted toward those who don’t have that education or training.
So…it seems that what we really need to do is to get everyone to understand the importance of an education, and to get them to go for it. That will enable them to get a job that pays a living wage.
And leave the burger-flipping to the teenagers who want a little spare cash.