There's no shame in starting at the bottom
We've been hearing a lot about the plight of the minimum-wage worker lately.
On Monday morning, these workers are sitting in my freshman economics class wondering if they should feel like victims.
I tell them just the opposite: They'd be a victim if that opportunity were taken away. And that's exactly what many people across the country are inadvertently demanding.
Over the past year, workers have pitched strikes in hundreds of cities across the country, demanding a minimum wage of up to $15 per hour to replace the current $7.25 minimum wage. As Diana Ransom points out in Inc. Magazine, that adds up to $15,000 more a year for each worker. Sounds good for the worker — if that job exists.
The problem is that the money has to come from somewhere, and when employers are forced to pay more than the labor is worth — when the contribution of the worker doesn't match the cost to employ him — employers simply won't offer the job. And that consequence will fall hardest on young people who deserve the opportunity to take the first step in their careers.
The reality is that minimum-wage workers look a lot more like my college freshmen than the single mom with kids we've been reading about in the headlines. More than half of all minimum-wage workers are under the age of 25, and many are students trying to pay their way through school. Only about 15 percent of minimum-wage workers are heads of households with children.
So my students are fairly representative of the minimum-wage worker whose plight we're debating. And let's face it, while their ambition and intelligence is promising, most haven't reached the point where they have much to offer in terms of skill and experience.
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That's why entry-level jobs are so important — they offer the opportunity to acquire and hone basic, important skills. Not just the obvious habits like showing up on time, taking instructions, or following rules. Entry-level jobs plant the seeds for skills that will fully flower much later down the road.
Think about the demands placed on fast-food workers. To do the job, they need to learn how to work quickly under pressure during the lunch rush, juggle multiple responsibilities between the cash register and the kitchen, handle difficult feedback from customers, and motivate and collaborate with team members.
Now think about the demands of a brand manager, sales representative, or consultant. Working under pressure? Check. Juggling responsibilities? Check. Taking feedback, motivating, collaborating? Check, check, and check.
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When they stop and think about it, my students realize how relevant entry-level job experience can be when it comes to higher-paying, higher-profile jobs. Minimum-wage jobs are tough and that's what makes them a great first step on a career path.
I'm sympathetic to those who are calling for a higher minimum wage because I think what they're really asking for is a chance get ahead. The slow recovery and lack of job growth has left many people with few opportunities to move up into higher paying positions. But raising the minimum wage won't solve this problem. In fact, it's more likely to make the problem worse.
The risk isn't that a higher minimum wage will cause businesses to shut down or fire workers, but that businesses will simply leave open positions unfilled as the cost of employing entry-level workers rises.
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The end result is that it will be harder for students like mine to land that first job and acquire those skills that lead to upward mobility. That's bad for them, and it's bad for the rest of us who are relying on them to use their creativity to improve our lives in the years ahead.
— By Brian Brenberg
Brian Brenberg is an assistant professor of business and economics at The King's College in New York City. Follow The King's College on Twitter @TheKingsCollege.