You Gotta Start Somewhere


I’m not a hoarder. My wife says I am, but anyone that’s been married long enough knows that hoarding is a relative term. But unlike concert shirts and Levi’s from the 90’s, paper records of any kind is definitely something I don’t hang onto.

During a cleanout and organize effort this week, an envelope surfaced containing an interesting history of my first couple of years of teenage checking account history. There was a multitude of checks written to a pizza restaurant that I still frequent three to four times a week. There were plenty of $10 checks written to gas stations from a time when $10 could still get you a fair amount of gas. And there were even a check written to a friend that I paid to type up a senior research paper for me.

Maybe the most interesting thing was the deposit tickets. Specifically the amounts that I was bringing home for a 40 hour work week. A big fat $107.65 in July of 1986, just after I’d graduated from high school (minimum wage was $3.35/hour).

It’s not that I didn’t do good work or do hard work. I was doing cable TV and satellite dish installations, mostly doing the things that the older and more experienced guys preferred not to do. Running cable lines through brier and chigger-infested fields. Crawling under houses with wet foundations and clearance that only a skinny teenager could navigate. Digging post holes, mixing concrete, and digging by hand through packed down gravel driveways.

It’s just that I was doing work that didn’t require any special skill other than a willingness to work, along with some degree of physical fitness. My skill set couldn’t demand higher wages and there wasn’t more money available to pay me if it did. I eventually left for college and my workplace functioned fine without me.

Of course I wasn’t living out on my own at the time, so my expenses were minimal, other than pizza and gas. But it would have been pretty absurd at the time to insinuate that my employer would have been obligated to give me a better pay rate if my life situation was different. If I’d had a wife, kids, and a full basket of living expenses, it wouldn’t have changed the reality of my limited skill set. And it wouldn’t have changed the limited funds available for payroll expenses.

So how did we reach this point where it’s hard to avoid all the talk about a government mandated “living wage” or $15/hour minimum wage? I don’t know how we got here, but I’m certain that it’s a dangerous place to be if we don’t use our brains and reverse fields. To believe that these ideas can simply be breathed into being without disastrous consequences is wishful thinking to the extreme.

Beyond the correlating price hikes associated with unsustainable minimum wage hikes and beyond the damage that small business will suffer, there’s the rather large matter of making a whole lot of people unemployable. When the government basically makes it illegal to pay workers what they are worth, then those entry level workers simply won’t be hired. It’s that simple.

At any given time, there are millions of teenagers who are finishing up, and many times completely wasting,  a perfectly good public or private K-12 education. They’re not going to learn a trade or go to college and earn a degree that pays. Their best hope is to simply get a job, any job, regardless of pay, and learn what it means to work. When entry level wages are inflated to false levels, those kids won’t be hired…….ever. No employer is going to pay $15/hour for someone that can’t produce. It’s just not going to happen.

Those who lack skills will be deprived of any opportunity to develop skills, work ethic, and learn what it means to hold down a job. And they’ll be cursed to depend on their parents a little longer, and perhaps the government for their whole life. And maybe that’s just what some political movements desire. Dependence.

$3.35 an hour. No, I wasn’t learning a specific skill back in the 80’s while earning that wage. I was learning what it means to work. Show up every day and follow directions. Respect authority and pull your weight. Don’t ever just do enough to get by. Be willing to do unpleasant things and give your best effort. Don’t create messes and problems for your co-workers to finish or clean up.

Work ethic. It’s not exactly on the rise as each generation of workers changes to the next. So how do young people learn to work? Well, by working, of course (and by being made to believe that they MUST work). We need to be able to pay them what they’re worth while they learn. Because you gotta start somewhere.


The Little Things, They Matter

fight for 15

I suck at getting out of bed. Don’t get me wrong. I got my son to school on time every day this past year. I make it to work on time. But I have mastered the art of hitting snooze until there isn’t time for one wasted motion once my feet hit the floor.

So I’m not sure what possessed me to rise before 6:30am on the 2nd day of my kids’ summer break. But when I found my glasses and picked up my phone, there was already a text waiting from my wife, “Can you call me as soon as you get up? I need help”.

She was spending the week at our church, as a leader of a camp centered on service projects in our community for kids of all ages. Turns out that they were in need of some materials for their morning projects and were short on adult help that was available to acquire it. “Dollar General opens at 8. Can you be there when they open, and get the stuff to us as quickly as possible?”

They opened at 7:30, so I was inside by 7:50. There was a loud pop at 7:51, and half the lights went off, along with their coolers. Their computers system and register was out too. “I’m sorry, but we won’t be able to check you out.”  They were nice. I understand the difficulties of conducting business without computers or wi-fi. But I didn’t wait around to see if their power was restored.

I drove a short distance to a True Value store. All their lights were out, so I figured they didn’t open until 8 (late for a hardware store, I know). I was parked close to the entrance, so I noticed that the lights were still out when 8am rolled around. But there was an employee standing at the door so I got out of my truck and approached. He greeted me outside the door with a smile. “We don’t have power. But we can take care of you if you’re paying cash.” I quickly counted out my slim collection of $1’s and $5’s and figured I just might have enough to get what I needed. So I entered.

Armed with a flashlight, he asked me what I needed, and led me to the right aisle to help gather painting supplies. He helped me find exactly what I needed (and could afford for my small wad of bills), and then led me to the cash register where I was “checked out” with pencil, paper, and a cell phone for a calculator.

No big deal, right? Wrong.

Those little things matter. The doses of extra effort. Going beyond what is required or expected. Not as a matter of earning and keeping customers. Not as a matter of carrying out tasks that will bring immediate praise or monetary reward. Just choosing to do the right thing and do it the right way.

At the end of the day, the way we go about our jobs says a lot about the kind of people we are.

At the beginning of the days and all throughout, we all have at least a touch of a school kid’s “snow day mentality”. We quietly celebrate any chance to do less work, while sometimes choosing to ignore the reality that it takes a conscious effort to consistently rise above doing only what is required.

Pursuit of excellence and setting a higher standard for yourself don’t guarantee immediate rewards. But they will make you sleep better at night. And I think those people that sleep better at night find their rewards one way or another over time (but maybe not overnight).

That gentleman that led me through True Value with a flashlight didn’t earn my business for his employer. I shop there regularly anyway. He earned something more valuable: respect. I know this man isn’t a shortcut taker. He probably didn’t greet me at the door because he was instructed to or because it put more money in his pocket. He did it because it was the right thing to do.

I’m not going to venture too far off track with this, but I do hope to make something clear about all this talk of “Fight For $15”. To me, the notion of paying a worker without regard to the value of their work or their level of performance is just a level of silly that shouldn’t need explanation. But I at least hope that those who find themselves in support of these types of measures realize something: what you’re doing to workers like the man I encountered at True Value.

Believe it or not, this country is full of people who have consistently showed up at jobs, day after day and year after year. They may not be the highest paying of jobs, but they have put food on the table for people who have just been showing up and doing the right thing since the days of $3.35 minimum wage and earlier. Their employers couldn’t pay them as much as they wanted, but they’ve paid them what they could. These people have moved up in pay, not because the government dictated wages, but because of job performance, their contributions to company performance, and years of service. And they’ve earned a heckuva lot of respect over time.

These workers who earn around $10-$18/hr, along with consumers, they are the ones who will be paying for excessive minimum wage hikes (not the evil billionaires). And when I hear people talking about a living wage and a “fight for $15”, I know what it really means. That we are offering protections and guarantees to those who have yet to work their first day and those who have performed horribly at every job they’ve held, putting them on the same level of those who have excelled. That $14/hr worker? They’re getting bumped to $15 and then NEVER getting another raise. And the inexperienced become unemployable.

There are those whose whole existence is a snow day. And there are those who consistently push past the urge to do less, and instead do the little things and do things the right way. To place these two groups at equal pay levels would be disastrous.

Little things do matter. And if we invite enough people to do less, many many people won’t turn down that offer. The path of least resistance can be a path to destruction, so be careful before you choose it. The path of truth may be full of things we’d rather not hear. But we can’t avoid it.