Working for $8 an hour is Dickensian– as a screen shot, which quickly went viral, of McDonald’s advice for workers on how to make minimum wage stretch, reveals. It includes such nuggets as break up your meals into smaller pieces, which “results in eating less and still not feeling full.” Please, sir, may I have some more?
Many young adults, if they’re working today, are working for wages that can’t support a family, let alone themselves. The median age of a low-wage worker is 34. One-fourth of these workers have children. Even the fast food industry admits that the minimum wage they pay was never meant to be a living wage.
Recognizing the struggle of many workers, some cities are attempting to raise the minimum wage. New York City is raising its minimum wage over three years, to $9 by 2015. Sea-Tac, the suburb of Seattle that houses the airport, just raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. Washington, DC, is also working to raise the wage. California recently approved a rise in the minimum wage to $10 an hour, to phase in over two years.
However, as important as it is to raise the wage, it’s better to do it on a grander scale than SeaTac did. Raising it at the federal level or state level avoids unnecessary competition (or a race to the bottom as some might call it) between neighboring communities with lower wages.
While raising the minimum wage is a must — and contrary to arguments does not reduce the number of jobs — another hopeful sign was reported in the New York Times last Sunday: the growth of apprenticeships that lead to middle tier jobs that do pay living wages. BMW in South Carolina is importing the German model and finding success.
The model works with local community colleges and high schools on a curriculum that teaches the skills BMW — and other companies’ — needs. The state gives businesses a tax credit for instituting apprenticeships or other direct pipelines from school to work. Other companies have signed on as well. Apprenticeship Carolina, an umbrella organizations that links South Carolina’s technical colleges with private companies, has grown from 777 students in 2007 to 4,500 today and more than 600 companies, according to the Times.
Washington’s State’s direct-connect training programs are another example, as is Chicago’s Austin Polytech High Schools. Austin, on the distressed West Side, offers high school students a pathway to a machinist certificate, as well as internships at local manufacturers and job placement options with those same companies. The companies in turn agree to cover the costs of further education for the new worker. A recent newsletter shows where the graduating class of 2012 is one year later: employed and moving up a career ladder.
The Obama administration is on board as well. The White House announced $100 million in Youth CareerConnect grants for advancing technical training in high schools. The Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, told the New York Times that “As a nation, … we have regrettably and mistakenly devalued apprenticeships and training. We need to change that.” However, to date, there’s more rhetoric than action.
Apprenticeships are still a hard sell in the U.S. There’s a legacy of funneling minority children into vocational programs instead of college-track programs, and African American parents are often concerned that it may happen again. The Times reports that in South Carolina, school officials were at first wary of private companies dictating curriculum. Employers in turn equate apprenticeships with unions.
However, as more young people, and particularly vulnerable populations of young men, find jobs that can support a family in a company with upward mobility, the uphill battle to get apprenticeships up and running may get easier.