‘McWages’ Can Be the Path to the Middle Class

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on September 5, 2013

(by Phil Hickey, The Wall Street Journal) – My first job, at age 14, was washing dishes at a Big Boy restaurant in my hometown of Detroit. It was a job that gave me a strong work ethic and taught valuable skills that helped me move from the kitchen to eventually owning nine of my own restaurants.

worker

This experience is not uncommon. The first job held by nearly one in three Americans is in the restaurant industry. In addition to teaching personal responsibility, teamwork, discipline and accountability, these positions provide workers with opportunities for successful careers. Many of them – like me – advance from their entry-level, minimum-wage positions. Nine out of 10 salaried restaurant employees start off in hourly positions.

This industry provided me a steady job, first as a high-school student, then as I put myself through Michigan State University, and later as an adult raising a family. I’m not alone: The American restaurant industry provides a steady income to more than 13 million workers.

Unfortunately, critics of these jobs have been portraying the industry as ruthless and exploitative. They argue that jobs in restaurants are a dead end. Protesters at fast-food restaurants around the country in recent weeks have alleged that fast-food workers can’t survive on $7.25 an hour, the national minimum wage, and that restaurants must pay all of their employees a “living wage” of $15 an hour. On Thursday, protesters—with significant organizing help from the Service Employees International Union—are expected to turn out in 35 cities to make these claims.

The picture painted by unions and their allies is highly inaccurate. If we are going to debate the ethics of the restaurant industry and the value of working in it, let’s at least have a discussion based on the facts, which takes into account economic reality.

Consider the facts about the minimum wage. The majority of workers who earn a minimum wage in the United States work outside of the restaurant industry. In reality, only 5% of the 10 million restaurant employees earn the minimum wage. Those who do are predominantly teenagers working part-time jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 71% of minimum-wage employees in the restaurant industry are under the age of 25; 47% are teenagers.

Washington politicians, labor unions and the media often portray service jobs as inferior or less valuable to society than other kinds of employment. Instead of degrading this type of hard work, critics might consider the pride that many restaurant workers take in their jobs and the skills they learn.

The U.S. restaurant industry is vital to the country’s economic growth and has helped fuel the recovery now underway. While employment nationwide grew by 1.7% in 2012, restaurant industry employment grew 3.4%—making 2012 the 13th consecutive year that the restaurant industry has outperformed overall U.S. employment growth.

Many Americans rely on the additional income and flexibility these jobs offer as they seek to balance their careers with family responsibilities. Most industry workers, some 57%, are students with irregular schedules, teenagers saving for school or people who need a job with flexible hours that fit their busy lives. Part-time, entry-level work fills a critical need in the nation’s workforce.

But you won’t hear any of this coming out of Thursday’s protests.

The truth is that both part-time and full-time positions make the restaurant industry a versatile career option for a variety of workers. From underemployed or hard-to-employ workers to college graduates, the industry provides a pathway to the middle class and often beyond.

Efforts to devalue the industry and mandate changes, like raising the minimum wage, hurt workers by preventing businesses of all sizes from creating more jobs. As the U.S. economy continues to recover, let’s focus on preparing workers for high-growth positions and helping businesses expand—not on implementing policies that would eliminate jobs and shutter local businesses.

Mr. Hickey is chairman of the National Restaurant Association.

Published August 28, 2013 at The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted here September 5, 2013 for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.

Questions

1.  Tone is the attitude a writer takes towards his subject: the tone can be serious, humorous, sarcastic, ironic, inspiring, solemn, objective, cynical, optimistic, critical, enthusiastic…
Which word do you think best describes the tone of Phil Hickey’s commentary?  Explain your answer.

2. The purpose of an editorial/commentary is to explain, persuade, warn, criticize, entertain, praise or answer. What do you think is the purpose of Mr. Hickey’s commentary? Explain your answer.