As a 16 year-old Omaha kid I went down the block to “Dog-n-Suds”, the local drive-in restaurant, and asked for a job. The owner explained to me that the minimum wage was $1.25 per hour, but because he did not purchase any supplies outside of the borders of Nebraska, he was not subject to federal minimum wage legislation. He offered me a “fry cook” job for 65 cents per hour. Once he explained that he would include a free “Texas tenderloin” and a glass of root beer if I worked a shift lasting more than 6 hours, I was in! Yes, 1965 was the year that Don Salyards entered the ranks of the employed.
I remember that job fondly. When the owner left there was usually some horseplay among us, but never when a customer was present. We got the job done and had a favorable impression of our boss. He spent his last dime opening up the place and one of his children had a disability which severely strained his finances. Honestly, I don’t think he could have stayed in business if he had paid us $1.25 per hour. With so many baby-boomers competing for jobs it was good that work was available at less than minimum wage or many of us would have been unemployed, missing out on valuable labor force experience.
At sixteen I learned what all inexperienced workers learn; the basics of being a valued employee. First, show up. Second, show up on time. Third, Show up ready to work. Finally, always treat the customer with respect and a smile because the customer is always right. While this sounds trite to adults, for a kid this is a BIG DEAL. Even in the most menial job lessons are learned that assist you for your entire life.
But there was more. That first job gave me a sense of accomplishment. It was the first time that I had received money from someone other than my parents or relatives. Even flipping burgers I knew that my job was important to the business. I also knew that I was a valued employee because the boss kept paying me every week! Other kids, with less of a work ethic, got fired quickly.
Those that want to raise the minimum wage underestimate the damage they are doing by keeping young people out of work. While some workers benefit, many young kids miss out on their initial opportunity to learn about the world of work. As a result, many of them never appreciate work and opt out of a productive life. For these kids their entire lives are less fulfilling and satisfying than they could have been if they had been employed at sixteen. I don’t think it is an understatement to say that higher minimum wages (along with a few well-intentioned laws to “protect” young workers) have actually ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people.
Opportunity is the key to the growth of the economy, but it is also mandatory for personal growth. When the government stands in the way of opportunity it is doing children (and our society) a horrible disservice.