Why McJobs present a genuine opportunity for young workers

Core values by John Blundell in The Business

IF any single company excites the sneers of the anti-capitalists it is McDonald’s. Even the term McJob has entered the language from Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X – “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one”.

It does not have the wit of Samuel Johnson but it captures the haughtiness of all those who denigrate McDonald’s, the fast food chain. There’s just one problem – it is an entirely false characterisation.

McJobs should be praised. They represent significant life opportunities for McDonald’s staff or, as the company calls them, its “crew”. To work in one of the outlets of these hugely successful franchises is for many people not a career. It offers the opportunity to learn virtues that make all its workers better employees. A McJob is mostly a transient one for the young who are usually from middle class or rich families and are doing it to earn pocket money. It is not a job to be compared with a role in the professions. Serving, cooking or cleaning in a fast food restaurant is not to be compared to a long and structured life as a doctor, accountant or lawyer.

We should not mock McJobs, but regard them as a period of work experience for mostly young people – either students or the unskilled. McJobs, or so it seems to me, offer an employment deal that is popular. One that also offers a high degree of flexibility in hours. The company applies itself to teach the repertoire of all the tricks in a business that we might call “hospitality”.

May I offer a more accurate definition than Coupland’s? It comes from a franchise in Los Angeles that is equipped for disabled staff and was the first place ever to coin the word McJob: “A job specially created by the world’s most admired food service company at great cost to give disabled people opportunities not normally available to them”. It is worth registering this as the essence of the ethos and modus operandi of McDonald’s. You can only get a McFranchise if you are a locally engaged and resident individual. It does not allow partnerships or absentee owners. Ninety percent of McDonald’s staff are part-timers. The superior mind might reprimand the company for this, but it only reflects what McDonald’s has observed and confirmed in the marketplace – that many students and housewives want to supplement their incomes and not work full time. The frozen job markets of the European Union need more McDonald’s-style employers. McJobs are a beacon of opportunity.

Many references to McJobs express horror at the noise and bustle in a restaurant – especially at moments of customer surges. To some this is an outrage to delicate socialist sensibilities who seem to invest moral superiority in muesli or organic salads in secluded spots. They prefer the municipal or Soviet model of the staff canteens that close for lunch. After all, if they did not close for lunch, when could the staff eat?

McDonald’s fascinates me in describing what it looks for in its “crews”. It does not seek dexterity in chip frying or floor sweeping. It values most that elusive but crucial quality – “The Right Attitude”. This is a mixture of honesty, a tidy appearance, enthusiasm, a co-operative manner, reliability and motivation. This seems to me to be what every employer seeks. Yet look at the opportunities McDonald’s opens to people beyond the students who are en route to more conventional careers. McDonald’s is an open door to those who would be otherwise marginalised. It offers a rung on the ladder of life where they are equipped for wider working choices. A McJob is a genuine apprenticeship in work. All McDonald’s managers completing the Advanced Operations Course work toward the Diploma in Restaurant Management awarded by Nottingham Trent University? They are doing work of degree-level status. McDonald’s runs six management training centres in Britain which 10,000 people attend every year. This is matched across Europe – indeed on all five continents.

McDonald’s invests heavily in training and education. This translates not only into specific skills but also into that more intangible quality we might call self-respect or morale. McDonald’s enjoys a high esprit de corps. All McDonald’s crew members train for the Basic Certificate in Food Hygiene, validated by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Full timers take four months - part timers eight months to get this affirmation of competence and knowledge.

Of course most McJobbers do not seek a lifetime working in restaurants. They enjoy the singular flexibility of the role – not just flexible hours but flexible locations. If you have trained in a McDonald’s in Manchester you can easily work again in Portsmouth – or in Sydney or Chicago. However it is open to people to advance. Some 30% of all managers started as crew, as did 10% of all franchise holders. Many sneer at the uniformity of the McDonald’s offer but this is precisely what they have found people want. This is not lack of imagination. It is a deliberate strategy and part of the company’s ability to offer diverse foods at modest prices. McDonald’s is not the kind of bureaucratised personnel operation we see in public sector agencies or local authority empires? Let me not over-romanticise this. Much of the work is routine or banal, but how could it not be? However I have mostly found staff which are jolly and it is clear that a great team spirit pervades.

David Fairhurst, McDonald’s “vice president of people”, a nice title, explains: “We are not a career destination for everybody and we don’t pretend we are – our staff can name their hours and that is what they want. We have no problems of absenteeism or of high turnover. That is the test. Judge us on that.” No absenteeism and low turnover – they must be doing something right.

It is perplexing why McDonald’s attracts such sustained adverse criticism yet it may be precisely its virtues that totally irritate and provoke people to criticise it. I am not concerned to praise their burgers – though I admit to temptation each time I pass one of its restaurants. What interests me is why a formula that is undeniably popular serves as a magnet for hatred by those of the Left ­– including arson attacks in France.

The model that seems to appeal to such critics is rigid employment codes – nine to five, set holidays and pensions. Yes, that it is an option, but it is not the only one. For the young and mobile, and for students trying to pay off their debts, the relatively unskilled McJobs are a benevolent opportunity and demonstrably popular with customers. Is this the key to their high scores on the hatred indices?

McDonald’s is entirely a voluntary phenomenon. Nobody is coerced or compelled to work for it or eat the burgers. How I would love to see sleepy public agencies emulate McDonald’s many admirable qualities.

John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs and owns no shares in McDonald’s.

To read Blundell’s May 1998 article
McJob, McCheque, McWonderful
, in which he castigated the OED for thinking of putting McJobs in its dictionary with a negative meaning, click on title.

Invest in the IEA. We are the catalyst for changing consensus and influencing public debate.