June 1, 2019

Lessons I Learned In My First Minimum Wage Job

Lessons I Learned In My First Minimum Wage Job

The $15-an-hour minimum wage will almost certainly kill a disproportionately high number of jobs, although its proponents do not seem to understand or care. I support smaller, inflation-adjusted minimum wage requirements, because they will not precipitate major job-killing investments or changes in business practices.

I will not belabor the points I have made in many other articles and blog postings, other than to reiterate some of the obvious points:

• When anything costs a great deal more, people acquire far less of it. That is Economics 101. When the price of a job is raised from $10 an hour to $15 an hour, there will be far fewer minimum wage jobs.
• Higher minimum wages provide temporary bumps in pay, but they make the incumbents of overpriced jobs far less secure.

However, in the remainder of this blog, I want to focus on the lifelong benefit I gained from a low-status minimum wage job, my first job during high school.

What I learned from my first high school minimum wage job

Like many young people of my generation, I earned money to help pay for my college education by taking on minimum wage jobs during high school. My first job was at a bakery owned by an immigrant from Canada, whose wife and older son were also employed at the bakery. I earned the minimum wage of $1.25 an hour in 1965, and worked 30 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week during the summer. I had three job tasks: washing the used cookie baking pans (often in steamy 95 degree heat due to the combination of no air conditioning and the heat from the baking ovens), helping the owner’s son unload 100-pound bags of flour for the bakers, and helping the owner’s son load barrels of unsold food that was delivered to pig farmers for feed.

As hard as it may be to believe, I learned three lessons from that experience that came in very handy in my business operational leadership career:

• The owner periodically yelled at one of my colleagues, whose job it was to fill the eclairs with the chocolate and lemon fillings. His words rang out in my ears almost every day: “Don’t overfill the eclairs! Nobody notices the difference between an overfilled éclair and a moderately filled one.” He then used his favorite expression: “Money in the bank.” He was not only right about that, but he was making a broader point: people are not sensitive to small differences in ingredients or portion sizes in food.

Where did I apply that? When we started managing our cafeterias and dining rooms to help people manage their weight, we quietly reduced the size of high-calorie or sugary sauces, toppings, and desserts. No one noticed! It saved us money, but, more importantly, at the margins, it caused our employees to lose weight without noticing why.

• The owner yelled almost every day at people who left wire bread baskets on the floors at spots at which people walked. He would say: “Don’t leave those wire baskets lying around. Someone could trip and fall and get hurt. Then we would have to pay them workers compensation.” He then said: “Money in the bank!”

In focusing on safety in our Pitney Bowes workplaces, we always left room for people to walk, and like most safety-minded companies, we focused on avoiding tripping or slipping and falling, by keeping our floors clean and clear. My facilities people often wanted to reduce costs by reducing the frequency with which we hired maintenance and cleaning people, but I refused. It was “Money in the bank.”

• My fellow baking pan washer, Martin, and I were each yelled at for crumbling up and throwing away the used wax paper on the bottom of the cookie baking pans. The owner said: “Don’t throw that wax paper away. We can use the other side, which is completely clean and clear. Every one of those wax paper sheets costs $.03. Money in the bank!”

He was right. I calculated how many trays and pans of cookies the bakers produced every month, and I realized that, over a year, this supply item cost well over $100 per month, a lot of money in those days.

At Pitney Bowes, we had 2 million customers and many small expenses for each customer, as well as many small fee revenue opportunities. The team I inherited apparently had never worked for a boss like the bakery owner, so they tended not to pay attention to small items that could produce big cumulative savings. The expense savings were in the tens of millions of dollars, and the fee opportunities were huge. Within 10 years after I became the Financial Services Division President in 1993, our fee revenues had jumped from $4 million in 1993 to $232 million in 2003.

The Importance of Minimum Wage Jobs

People who want to earn middle-class wages and salaries and build savings for buying homes, college educations, and retirement understand the value of learning important business and work lessons earlier in their lives. To deprive millions of them of this opportunity by misguided minimum wage laws that reduce the number of these jobs is equivalent to keeping them in involuntary servitude for their lives.

We will win in the market for global competition only if every person is given business and life lessons early and often. I did not appreciate the value of this first job when I was 16 years old, but its value became clearer and clearer to me the older I got and the more successful I became.