Why McDonald’s Has Become a School for Remedial Work Skills
Religion & Liberty Online

Why McDonald’s Has Become a School for Remedial Work Skills

mcdonalds“Clean up your own mess. Your mother doesn’t work here.”

That was a sign, printed on dot matrix printer paper, which hung in the breakroom of the McDonald’s where I worked. While that was nearly thirty years ago, I suspect that same sign is still there (though probably reprinted on a laser printer). But the idea behind it has changed. Your mother may not work at McDonalds, but the company—and others that hire low-skilled employees—are increasingly taking on the role of in loco parentis.

Lessons in basic life skills that were once taught by parents—such as punctuality, self-direction, basic personal hygiene—are increasingly being provided by the shift manager at the local fast food restaurant. That is why it’s absurd to claim that companies that are willing to hire people who are unqualified for the labor force are somehow getting over on the American taxpayer.

As Reihan Salam,

McDonald’s is a low-wage employer. Its workers pay relatively low taxes and get a relatively high level of benefits, particularly if they’re members of low-income households, as many of them are. This has led many observers to conclude that while employers like Facebook are the good guys, employers like McDonald’s are the bad guys. If McDonald’s employees can’t get by on their wages, and they need the earned-income tax credit, food stamps, and Medicaid to lead decent lives, surely their employer is a corporate villain that is forcing taxpayers to take on the needs of its employees.

This notion that McDonald’s and companies like it are bilking taxpayers undergirds the case for increasing the minimum wage. Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute has criticized this argument by observing, correctly, that wages primarily reflect skills, and that the “bilking taxpayers” thesis suggests that all social programs should be abolished, as they allow companies to get away with paying their workers a pittance. That’s a rather odd argument coming from the left.

I would go further than Biggs. McDonald’s and other low-wage employers aren’t just not bilking taxpayers. Rather, they are taking on a task that many American families and schools are failing to perform. To put it bluntly, McDonald’s is a company that hires large numbers of people with limited skills, many of whom are teenagers and young adults, and it introduces them to the ways of the workplace.

There are many bright young people in this country who lack the non-cognitive skills — like grit, self-regulation, motivation, and the ability to work constructively with others — that one needs to climb the economic ladder. Schools generally rely on parents to impart these skills, and for good reason.

Parents who don’t have the presence of mind to provide a stable environment for their children expect the schools to pick up the slack. The result is that children who don’t have stable families that impart the habits and skills necessary for steady employment can find themselves struggling in the labor market, if not locked out of it entirely.

In order for McDonald’s to be successful, it either needs to inculcate these habits and skills in its workers, or it needs to de-skill the work of operating a quick-service restaurant to such an extent that it can withstand high turnover without going out of business. McDonald’s, like many businesses that employ workers with limited skills, pursues a mix of both strategies.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).