By John F. Di Leo -
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) organized a fast food protest, demanding that their prospective members all price themselves out of a job.
So, understandably unable to resist a straight line while filling in as a talk show guest host, pundit Erick Erickson said that if you’re still earning minimum wage at 30, you’ve probably failed at life.
It’s easy to blast Mr. Erickson for the tone-deafness of his comment. While certainly true of some, his quip is hardly true of most minimum wage employees. But is that fair? Is it reasonable, or helpful to the national economic and social debate in any way, to allow the discussion over the minimum wage to move away from the actual issue of the minimum wage and onto the question of whether conservatives are tone-deaf or not?
Rather than allowing the Left their usual privilege – to change the subject as fast as possible – let’s get down to the specifics, and explore the minimum wage, in purpose and in practice, shall we?
I’ll begin, briefly, with my own career, in international trade. I’m a Customs broker and trade compliance trainer, and I’ve worked both sides of the desk, as we say in my business. That means I’ve worked as both a shipper (a manufacturer, distributor, wholesaler or retailer) and a carrier (a freight forwarder, containership line, or other transportation provider). Through decades of experience on both sides of the logistics industry, I became proficient enough at the business to be a consultant and trainer.
This didn’t happen overnight … and since most aspects of this career aren’t taught in the business schools, I had to learn my career by actually doing it, by handling thousands and thousands of shipments over the decades. My first jobs were minimum wage jobs – subminimum wage, in fact, as a teenager starting out – as a file clerk, as the filer of various government forms, as a kid at a desk, doing data entry on an early computer when there was office work to do, emptying ashtrays and wastebaskets when there wasn’t.
I didn’t take these early jobs for the money. I took them because I was learning a career. While I may not have expected my career to go quite in this direction, these early jobs gave me the experience I needed to pass the Customs broker license exam and to learn domestic and international logistics. These early low-wage jobs made all the difference in my growth as a professional in my chosen trade.
A Million Workers’ Stories
Our economy is full of stories like mine. The “minimum wage job” isn’t really about the dollar figure; it’s a shorthand for a concept older than economics itself: the concept of apprenticeship. The minimum wage job is that entry level role that gives a young person a start in the world of work. Perhaps it’s a file clerk job in an office, or an assembly line in a factory, or a cashier job in retail, or an internship in a marketing department.
The hourly wage is low, because you’re learning more than you’re contributing, at first. Once you start contributing more than you’re learning, you get promoted out of that minimum wage, up to the next level, and then the next, and the next. You can move from clerk to assistant supervisor, then to manager… from assembler to assistant foreman to foreman… from drive-through order-taker or fry cook up to assistant manager.
Our business community is full of plant managers and production managers and engineers and CEOs who started out at the bottom and rose to the top, learning more with every job, as they gradually became experts in their fields.
You don’t even have to stay in the same field to benefit this way. An employee might find he or she doesn’t like the restaurant business, or the manufacturing plant, or the sales office. After a few months in the entry level job, the employee might move on to a different one in another line of work completely, and see how that one fits.
Your work at that last job helps you in this quest, because now you have experience, and a reference who can honestly say to your next prospective employer “Well, he didn’t seem to love my industry, but he showed up on time and worked hard, and I’m sure he’ll put in just as solid an effort for you. Maybe he’ll find his calling in your field!”
While you’re young, living at home with your parents, a full time student in high school and then in college, you can afford this kind of experimentation. In fact, that’s what it’s all for: finding your best fit in a diverse economy, one filled with opportunities in all directions.
The employers couldn’t afford to offer such options if they paid more than the jobs are worth… but as long as it’s a low wage, they can make this buffet table of career options available to the young workers. It’s a wonderful thing.
But there’s the danger: force these employers to raise these entry-level wages to a level beyond what the employers feel they’re worth, and these jobs will disappear into the ether, as fast and as irrevocably as tax dollars in Washington.
Finding the Failures
If you look around, however, you’ll find failures before you find the successes.
You don’t see the corporate executive at the company headquarters; you see the clerk bagging your groceries. You don’t see the store manager in his office; you see the retail floor associate in the store. You don’t see what they have the potential of becoming; you only see what they are today. So we have to be imaginative, and understand the economy, to see the future of these employees, and therefore to see how their paths may lead to success if they shoulder on.
But there are also warning signs that all is not as it should be. Instead of the teens who should be holding these minimum wage jobs, you see grown men and women, fathers and mothers with children to support, even grandparents, working entry level jobs in their twilight years, when the expertise of a long career ought to be channeled toward lucrative consulting, not toward greeting shoppers at a big box store. What happened?
Well, we let in tens of millions of unskilled immigrants, for one thing. Between the legal and the illegal, we’ve welcomed an enormous number of foreigners over the past half-century, from all over the world. While some certainly come for the welfare state, many do indeed come to work and prosper. They take up many of these low-level jobs, and the weaker their language skills, the more slowly they’ll move up. So a job that ought only to last at the minimum wage level for a few months, or half a year at the most, winds up lasting a year or two. Or three.
And we also engaged in a conscious onslaught upon the employment community. Over the past fifty years, we’ve grown the federal government to become the nation’s largest employer – an army of inspectors and bureaucrats, auditors and rulemakers. Even when they have the best of intentions, and yes, some certainly do, the burden of taxation and regulations they have laid on the shoulders of business is crippling. Industry by industry, business by business, the federal government has driven employers to foreign shores, removing the opportunities for advancement for which this great nation once was known.
And through the invention of Obamacare, we’ve even made it desirable for the struggling businesses that remain to stay small. We’ve literally punished growth, by setting up a trip wire that rains down destruction if you cross it, so the people who can, simply avoid crossing it. This keeps businesses small even when they know they OUGHT to be growing… so again, the natural path of promotion is stymied because “the next positions” simply don’t exist.
In the Great Contraction that has occurred during the Obama presidency, millions of jobs have disappeared. The part-time entry level jobs remain, but there are far fewer buyers and salesmen, engineers and designers, accountants and lawyers, than there were before. Without a next step, you must stay at your current step as long as they’ll have you.
So yes indeed, there are now people staying in these entry-level starter positions for years, people staying there because there’s nothing to move up to, people who are adults, middle-aged workers who ought to have long since graduated from all this.
Failing at Life
The Left seeks to lay the blame for this problem at the feet of the employers of those entry-level jobs. They see people staying too long and blame the employer for it, but is that really those employers’ fault?
No. Of course not. This lack of advancement is the unavoidable result of generations of leftist policies, the policies that have stripped the nation of opportunities, stripped the communities of alternative employment options.
The fast food shop didn’t cause the United States to have the highest effective corporate tax rate on earth, the Democratic Party did.
The manufacturing plant didn’t shrink on purpose, moving production line after production line to its Chinese or Indian facility in desperation; the Democratic Party did that to him, by growing the EPA, FDA, USDA, OSHA, and a myriad of other federal agencies, until they were so big they weighed down every employer.
It’s the Democratic Party – through their congressmen, senators, presidents and cabinet members – that has unleashed all this economic destruction. That party is the reason that people stay in the entry level jobs far too long; they’ve removed the second, third, and fourth rungs from the career level of our nation, leaving people hanging on for dear life to that ever-more-precarious bottom rung.
Has anyone “failed at life” in the low-wage debate in America? Oh, you bet they have:
It’s the American Left that has failed at life… and keeps on failing… as it fails to see the errors of its ways, and keeps on oppressing the employers and employees of a once great economy.
This country has been the economic engine of the world, and it could be again, but only when the party of economic failure is banished from the halls of power, and the invisible hand of the free market is allowed to return us to the path of prosperity that our Founding Fathers intended for us.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance manager, but he held a number of entry-level jobs in his youth, working for a wine importer, a theatrical touring company, a freight forwarder, a telemarketing firm, an auto club, and a department store. These jobs paid him in much more than their few dollars an hour; they paid him in experience, preparing him for his career in the American economy. And in the quest for a career, that experience is golden, no matter what numbers appear on those early paychecks.
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