I babysat beginning when I was 14, and when I was sixteen I graduated to ‘real’ jobs. All of my first six or seven part-time jobs paid the minimum wage, which was two-seventy-five an hour back then. I worked as a waitress-slash-pack mule running cakes and pies up and down stairs at an enormous banquet restaurant. No tips – just the minimum wage.

I moved over to Burger King, still getting the minimum wage. After that I worked at a health food store — minimum wage again. I noticed something about me and the other kids working minimum-wage jobs, compared to older people working jobs that paid higher wages.

The minor thrill of getting your first ‘real’ job dissolved very quickly. Immediately following the minor thrill was a sense of jaded acceptance. “I have a minimum-wage job. If there were ever a job that is going nowhere and that will give me nothing but a tiny paycheck, this is the one.” The kids I worked alongside were normal, fun and interesting high-school and college kids, but none of what they brought to the job was celebrated or, in fact, needed in those plug-and-play positions.

The most significant thing about minimum-wage jobs is not where the minimum wage sits by Federal or state law at any moment, but the fact that the business owner or manager has decided to pay its employees the absolute rock-bottom that the law allows. That decision colors the employment relationship. In fact, it overwhelms any other aspect of the deal. Everyone working at a minimum-wage job knows that if the law allowed his manager to pay a penny less per hour, the manager would do it.

The minimum wage is a loud statement. It says ‘It’s not legally possible for me to value your work any less than I already do.’

People working minimum-wage jobs get that message loud and clear. They know they are cogs in a machine, and the smallest and least significant cogs, to boot. Working at minimum-wage jobs during high school, my friends and I responded to the loud message “You could be anybody” in various, typically teenage ways. We laughed about our low-on-the-totem-pole status.

We kept an emotional distance between ourselves and our work, knowing we could be canned at any moment. I got fired from Burger King, for instance. They did not tell me that I was fired. I called the store to get my hours for the coming week and the person on the other end of the phone said “Bring in your uniform.” In typically teenage, “Hey, I work a minimum-wage job” fashion I responded “Come and get it.”

The message to employees working minimum-wage jobs is “A rhesus monkey could do your job. Sorry if I keep forgetting your name, but you minimum-wage drones all look alike to me.” When employers whine and wail about proposed increases in the minimum wage, they are bewailing not government interference but their own inability to manage a business. Anyone who’s paying the minimum wage in the talent marketplace today has no business being in business in the first place.

Can you imagine running your business in such a way that a tiny shift in the supply chain, buyer preferences or any other naturally-oscillating aspect of the business ecosystem would put you out of business?

Yet this is what minimum-wage slave-labor CEOs want us to believe: that a fifty-cent-an-hour uptick in the mandated minimum wage would throw their finances so out of whack that they’d go out of business or have to lay off people. That is ridiculous. Invite me over, my darling, open the books and I will show you fifteen ways to save money or make money apart from wages. Anyone with an ounce of business sense could lend the same hand.

Employers who cling to the fiction that paying the minimum wage is the only way to stay afloat are too stupid to survive in the Darwinian competitive landscape in the first place.

The first job of anyone working a minimum-wage assignment is to gather enough resume fodder to go get a better job.

Institutionalized constant turnover is a bigger economic impediment to a firm’s success – including fast-food joints, retail stores and anyone else who insists that a bump in the minimum wage would threaten their survival – than the wages paid themselves. That should  be obvious.

Years ago I attended a weak and wan Leadership Training program hosted by a well-known firm whose claim to fame has less to do with leadership than with a strong consumer brand associated with family fun. Within the first hour of the training workshop the leader said “Our employee training here is so thorough that we spend 15 days training every new employee, even the ones in positions whose average tenure is only forty days.”

Whoa whoa whoa there, I said — back up a second. You have positions here where the average tenure is only forty days? Yes, said Miss Chirpy Clueless, our custodian positions and some of our retail positions have even less average tenure than that!

Then there’s your problem! I said.

Why would you train people for fifteen days in order for them to stick around another 25 days, when you could easily figure out why people bail so quickly and solve that problem instead?

We have not thought about business as a system. We think of columns and rows. We see the particles, but not the waves. We read The Fifth Discipline years ago, or maybe we only bought the book and stuck it on our credenza to make us look smart.

I was not anything remotely like a business advisor or thought leader when I asked questions about training and turnover in the leadership workshop. I was twenty-five years old.

We need to take off our business-thinking cap and put on our human cap. When you pay someone the minimum wage to push a broom and a dustpan and answer visitors’ questions all day, many of them will quit very quickly. We can be smarter than that.

We don’t have to play business right in front of the net, paying people the least we can and pretending that human mojo doesn’t power our businesses, only well-structured processes and Operational Efficiency. We can open our eyes to what really moves a business forward — a clear vision and a committed team.

We can move way out in front of the net and play offense. Plenty of restaurateurs and retailers do it. How does Target manage to pay nine bucks an hour and get sharp and sparky people into red shirts while their retail competitors mewl and whine about any change in the minimum wage?

If we looked for two seconds at the relevant factors — how well do minimum-wage folks do their jobs versus higher-paid employees, how long do minimum-wage people stick around and what value could an increase in wages provide for our company — there wouldn’t be any employers paying the minimum wage anymore.

The minimum wage is a crutch for badly-run businesses and inept managers.

My bottom line on the minimum wage is that every city, county and state should look at its own threshold for public assistance, and if the local standards allow full-time working people to qualify for food stamps or other benefits, then the minimum wage is too low. It’s ridiculous and unfair to ask taxpayers to fill in the gap when employers aren’t paying enough for their employees to rise about the qualification level for welfare benefits. That should go without saying.

I am happy for my tax dollars to support people who are destitute, but not people who are destitute because their employer is too cheap to pay them enough to live on. Whether it’s seven twenty-five or eight bucks an hour, the minimum wage is a scarlet letter on the brand of any business. The message is “Yes, I am a CEO, but I don’t know that the hell I’m doing.”

 

This article was written by Liz Ryan from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.