Saturday, February 22, 2014

So What is Wrong with a Minimum Wage Job?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the economy.  You can't help it. The articles about the disparity - the vilifying the 1%.  The glorifying the 1%.  The statements from people like Tom Perkins.  (I have worked for companies that are funded by this guy.  Doesn't he realize he already gets "more votes"?)

The comments sections are always a thrill.  On one side, you have people vilifying the 1% for being liars, cheaters, and thieves.  On the other side, you have people glorifying them for being hard working and earning everything they have.  What is the truth?  Well, both, and usually something in between.

There is nothing wrong with being in the 1% and earning all of it.  Two income couples with good careers can hit that number.  There's nothing wrong with being in the 1% and inheriting it.  Sure, it's not as "noble", but hey you can't pick your parents.  I think when people vilify the 1%, they are generally talking about people who lie, cheat and steal.  Should we admire people who are on Wall Street earning the money just because that's how the "game is played"?  Hedge fund managers, are they really earning their big bucks?  Should we admire the bankers who cheat?  Should we admire the CEOs who make big bucks for their companies by offshoring?  Should we admire the CEOs of companies who bring in billions - but pay their employees less, make sure they get less than 30 hours a week so they don't have to give them health insurance, and pretty much guarantee that a large # of their employees are on public assistance?  Because then ALL Americans are paying for that.

I am amazed at the attitude that "people should go to college, learn a trade, and get a better job!"  I get that it's part of the "pull yourself up from your bootstraps" American attitude.  And hey, that's what I did.  That's what a lot of my family members did.  I am not saying that it's not a good attitude to have.

But what I DON'T understand is - when did it become shameful to have a minimum wage job?  When did it become shameful to have a service job?  Frankly, in my lifetime, you could support a family on these jobs.  You may start out on minimum wage at McDonald's or a grocery store.  Eventually you got raises because you were a hard worker.  You got more hours.  You got medical insurance.

But now?  These jobs are increasingly part time with no benefits.  "Just get a better job."  What's the problem with that?  THERE AREN'T ENOUGH JOBS.  There, I said it.

I'm an engineer.  Over my 20+ year career, I have seen most of my jobs going overseas.  How many new semiconductor fabs open in the US?  Not many (it has been changing a bit lately because China is getting more expensive).  Offshoring of good paying jobs in manufacturing or programming is a serious problem.  What does that leave us with?  Service jobs.  People who ignore this fact are living in a dream land.

So then it becomes more competitive.  You have 10 programmers competing for 5 jobs.  (And they are also competing with 5 H1B's because we have a "shortage of programmers".)  You have 8 accountants competing for 5 jobs.  You have 5 programmers and 3 accountants working receptionist jobs.  You have 8 receptionists working at McDonalds and Walmart.

I think there is this thought that all it takes is effort and hard work to better yourself.  But what about when that doesn't work?  When did it become SHAMEFUL to work hard at a manual or minimum wage job?  You can work hard stocking shelves, driving a truck, cleaning toilets, picking up trash.  You can take PRIDE in flipping burgers, being a cashier.  Why is that suddenly shameful?  Why should it be embarrassing?  Why is it suddenly, here in 2014, "not worthy of having a decent living"?  It used to be worthy. 

Growing up, my family members were: auto mechanics, bank tellers, cafeteria ladies, cleaning ladies, secretaries, office managers, shelf stockers, truck drivers.  You might not have been able to be solid middle or upper middle class on those jobs, but you could make a living.  If some of those jobs are not "worthy" of a good living anymore, then what next?  Next thing will be that accountants, programmers, restaurant managers, waiters - they aren't "worthy" either.  Then what?

What seems to be ignored here are two things:
1.  Not everyone has the mental capacity to go further.  Not everyone can be an engineer, scientist, doctor. So?  Is there shame in that if someone is creative or hard working or dedicated?
2.  SOMEONE HAS TO DO THESE JOBS.  Clean the toilets, flip the burgers.  We cannot have a country full of "16 to 22 year olds" who do all of the menial labor.  Even if we had a country of 100% college degrees, that means someone with a college degree is working the cash register at McDonald's. 

Why is that so shameful?


Biz said...

My daughter works part time at Panera Bread - she only works 30 hours every two weeks because she's in school, but only the managers work full time there - they cap part-time workers at 36 hours a week so they don't have to pay benefits.

Luckily this summer she is getting promoted and will work full time for the summer!

Joanne said...

This is a GREAT post. And you're so right...there are so many jobs that are gaming the system so that they don't have to pay their employees benefits and so, also, not ENOUGH jobs WITH benefits to go around!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that you called attention to the shame invoved in more service type positions. I used to say I was " just a cashier" until someone told me differently. I am not "just a cashier" but rather "I am a cashier". Also, I have to constantly remind myself that my work does not define me. But I agree it is difficult not to attach meaning to what I do, especially when it is not highly regarded. I agree that not everyone was created to be a doctor, etc and move up the corporate ladder. I have a disability and my husband has a fulltime career ( as society calls it ) and it can be very challenging to to feel such a clear distinction of appreciation for part time work especially menial work. I feel at times society has handed me the short end of the stick, as if somehow the work I'm doing is not worthy enough. I think work is a necessity but too many people lose sight of the vulnerable who are willingly to work as much as possible. There are many people who can only do menial work and that does not make them less valueable.

Amy K said...


alex c said...

this was a great entry filled with a lot of emotion, passion, and you make lots of good points!