As each year draws to a close, many people review the past year and consider what changes they’d like to see in the coming year. I’d imagine fast-food workers that protested low wages can be counted among them.
You might recall thousands of employees at McDonald’s and other chains insisting the Federal minimum wage be increased. Some proposed the current minimum of $7.25 be more than doubled to $15 per hour. Working full-time at the current rate, they explained, it’s nearly impossible to pay their bills, much less get ahead in life.
From a pragmatic perspective this makes sense. A person working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at the present rate barely earns $15,000. And that’s before taxes and other deductions. Who can live on that, especially with a family?
If the government mandated the minimum wage be boosted to $15 per hour, that would raise the full-time fast-food worker’s annual pay to more than $31,000. Not bad for flipping burgers and asking customers, “Do you want fries with that?”
While I’m sympathetic toward people struggling to eke out a reasonable standard of living on low incomes, there might be a better approach than waiting and hoping for government or corporate largesse to lift them out of their circumstances.
Consider this: In a newspaper article about the workers’ protest, one man stated he’d been working in the fast-food industry for six years at the $7.25 hourly rate. Six years? Do you suppose he’s being held there at gunpoint? If his compensation is unsatisfactory, why hasn’t he done something during that time to prepare for a better paying and, probably, more fulfilling job?
Let me share some of what I learned from my friend, Gary Highfield, who recounts his life’s journey in When ‘Want To’ Becomes ‘Have To!’ – Breaking the Chains That Are Holding You Back. About 30 years ago, Gary was one of those underpaid hourly workers, performing manual labor for a steel fabricating company. He was making $7 an hour, hardly enough for a family of five to survive, much less thrive.
Desiring a better life for his wife and children, Gary applied for food stamps. His request was denied – he was earning 33 cents a day too much to qualify. Next he approached his boss for a $1 per hour pay increase. At that stage in Gary’s life, $2,000 more per year would have felt like he’d won the lottery. But his boss said no.
Poor Gary, right? Well, not as he tells it. Reflecting on those apparent setbacks, he notes the irony: “The worst thing that ever happened to me was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Instead of resigning himself to a life of pinching every penny, or curling up in a fetal position and wallowing in self-pity, Gary took action. Realizing he couldn’t count on either the government or his employer to provide the better life he wanted, Gary stumbled onto an important principle: To get paid more, you have to become worth more.
He embarked on a comprehensive self-improvement program: strengthening interpersonal skills; learning sales and marketing secrets by attending seminars, reading books and listening to tapes; discovering how to dress to make a good impression; even pursuing a job relentlessly until he was hired for no reason other than his persistence.
What was the outcome? Within 18 months he had nearly tripled his income. He became the top salesperson at his company, and within several years was earning seven times what he had been making at the steel shop.
All this was due, in part, to not qualifying for food stamps and not receiving the pay raise he requested. These reversals taught him the difference between depending on someone else and depending on oneself.
Even when friends sounded doubtful, questioning the bold steps he was taking to improve life for himself and his family, and he encountered other obstacles, Gary refused to accept failure as a final verdict. As he says today, “Impossible isn’t possible…until you quit.”
Of course, he didn’t achieve this all by himself. People entered his life at key moments, ranging from a generous clothier to employers willing to give him a chance. Looking back, Gary regards many of these encounters as “divine appointments.” Without question, God was in the midst of his quest for a better life.
In the process he learned an important biblical truth: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). God has a purpose for each of us, and if we’re willing to step out in faith, He’ll reveal a plan beyond anything we could have envisioned.
So what about the protesting fast-food workers? For some, maybe there’s no other employment option. For others, however, the first step is realizing that unless they’re aspiring to management positions, McDonald’s probably isn’t a career destination but just a stop along the way. A second step is trying to figure out what they’d really like to do in life and determining how to achieve it.
As Gary would tell any of them, it won’t be easy. But the hard work, dedication and sacrifice to get there will be worth it. The alternative? As he says, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.”
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, a former newspaper editor and magazine editor. He is presently vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., a non-profit focused on mentoring and coaching business and professional leaders. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and has authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” “Business at Its Best,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. He also posts regularly on two blogs, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com, and www.bobtamasy.wordpress.com. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.