In Defense of the Minimum Wage

As someone who has worked in the Service Industry for over 40 years, I have had the opportunity to both work for the federal minimum wage, and also to offer employment to persons at or slightly above minimum wage.   It seems that all around us we see protests for exorbitant hikes in the minimum wage.  Business owners and economists argue that this is not the solution, while many activists see this as the road to a better future.

Having experienced minimum wage as both an employee, and an employer, I would like to speak up for a “reasonable” minimum wage.  And by reasonable I mean a wage much closer to $8.00 or $9.00 per hour than the $15.00 per hour being tossed around by fast food workers urged on largely by Labor Union organizers.

 The problem seems to be that many of us have forgotten what the minimum wage should be.  It is a floor, not a ceiling; a starting point, not a limit on opportunity; a place to start learning, but certainly not the place to stop the learning process.

 My first minimum wage job was picking out the rotten potatoes before they went into the peeler and the fryer in a potato chip factory.  It was hot, smelly, dirty work.  By the end of the day I smelled like a rotten potato.   And even after taking a shower, the smell lingered.  But even though it was hard, hot, and smelly, I learned a great deal from this job:

  1.  I learned to be on time.
  2. I learned to work hard, follow instructions, and get along with co-workers.
  3. I learned to follow the rules of the company.
  4. I learned just how much a dollar is worth.
  5. I learned that, next time, I wanted a better job.

 My next job was as a janitor in large downtown building (and yes, it was better). I stayed at that job for several years, earned some money for college and worked my way up from restroom cleaner (clearly the bottom rung) to a floor supervisor.  I moved up by following instructions, doing what was asked of me, and then doing a little more.  When they were looking for people to work overtime, or needed extra help, I volunteered.   I got promoted, just a little bit, and was soon making more than minimum wage, if only by a little. 

 Minimum wage jobs gave me an opportunity for higher education.   Since I had to pay my own way it was important to make the most of every dollar.   It was tight.  I went to a State University, and I didn’t complain.  I was happy.   In most jobs I worked my way up from minimum wage to a better position, and then on to supervision. 

 In college I learned to write reasonably well.  I learned how to market myself and the goods and services of the companies I worked for.  But the greatest skills I learned came from balancing a full-time job as a janitorial supervisor and my studies as a full-time student at the same time. 

 As I look back, I remember a long line of friends and associates who started at minimum wage, but worked for something more.   Those jobs at or just above minimum wage helped us achieve our goals, and in many cases much more. 

 And now we hear the rallying cry for doubling the minimum wage in just a few short years.  We hear about the fast food worker who has worked at the same job for 5, 10, or even 15 years who is still making barely above minimum wage in spite of all their years on the job.  Perhaps we should ask how many other employees worked alongside this person who have since moved up in the company. 

 It is hard to find good help, and most companies look first at their own employees when they need to hire a supervisor, manager, or other higher level position.   In my years in the service industry I have promoted hundreds of employees and to this day when companies ask me where to find the best people, I tell them to start looking at the people they already have.

 And while I know that you may not be able to support a family of four with a minimum wage job, we need to remember that this has always been true, and it was never the purpose of the minimum wage to provide this level of support.  The minimum wage is just what it says, the “minimum” an employer can pay for entry level, unskilled employees.  When did we, as individuals and as a country, begin to think it was the maximum an employee could earn?

 The effort to increase the federal minimum wage by nearly $8.00 per hour may have noble intentions.  It will, however, surely come with a long list of unintended consequences.   Raising the minimum wage for unskilled entry level workers to income levels now earned by many with 2 and 4 year degrees will surely prove problematic for businesses, government, and individuals.  The list of problems associated with such a change may range from decreased employment to slower economic growth and increased inflation.

 Rather than artificially raise wages to an unsupportable level, let us instead focus on modest increases to the minimum wage, greater emphasis on teaching job skills and improved opportunities for advancement.  This path has been proven in the past.  Many will take advantage of these opportunities.  Some will continue to find it easier to complain about the unfairness of their employer, their government, and our economic system than to learn new skills or put forth greater effort.  But isn’t that the way it has always been?