Diary

Minimum wage and losing at life

Erick has taken some heat over comments he made while guest hosting the Rush Limbaugh Show on Thursday on the subject of minimum wage (see Failing at Life for more context but a sample of the critiques are here, here, etc). I think Erick is mostly right on the issue.

My family comes from Appalachia. Both my father and grandfather quit school at age thirteen to go to work full time, my grandfather loading coal with his older brother in the days when coal miners were paid by the ton and a younger sibling could boost the older worker’s output. My father’s first job was carrying a pair of 5-gallon water cans over a single steel beam over the Bluestone River to workers on the far side while the bridge over the Bluestone just south of Hinton, WV was being built. I’m not only a first generation college graduate, I am a first generation high school graduate. Whatever my parents did not know about choosing a college or picking a major they did know about hard work, dependability, and loyalty.

Unlike Pete Wehner and a lot of the people criticizing Erick, I’ve actually been broke. I’ve had a minimum wage job while broke. And I’ve had that experience without being able to turn to my parents for assistance or negotiate an advance on my trust fund allowance.

I worked my way through college with most of that income coming from working construction during the summer. My last summer in college, between my junior and senior years, didn’t produce much income because nine weeks of it was given over to military training in preparation for commissioning after graduation. Through a series of misadventures involving girls, alcohol, and bad companions I ended up behind the eight-ball when it came to graduation. Instead of graduating in May, I graduated in July. Barely. The upshot of this was that I graduated 1) broke… something less than $40 to my name in checking, savings, and cash, and 2) a several month time-lag before I could go on active duty.

I graduated and was commissioned on a Thursday. Found a job in a steel shop as a laborer on Friday. Went to work on Monday. At minimum wage. It was a bit south of $3 an hour. But sometimes you don’t have choices if you want to eat and sleep inside.

At the time I was living on peanut butter, plain spaghetti, and Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. Not that I was vegan or particulary ascetic but that is the diet my budget would support (with the occasional cadged meal from the families of friends). Lunch was not something that I brought to work. So during lunch break I started firing up one of the welding machines and taught myself to tack weld because it was something to do. A couple of weeks into my job, my boss happened by while I was playing around with scrap steel and got the company to pay for my exam and certification as a welder. With it came a pay raise.

The next step, after a couple of accidents that cost me two teeth broken by a chain slipping off a bridge beam and thirteen stitches in a leg when a grinder came apart in my hands, was when my boss discovered I could read and count… something in pretty short supply on the job. I got to shadow the “fitter,” the guy who chalked the blueprint design on steel slabs, and moved into that position. And another pay raise.

The point here is that I could have had an attitude about the job, because it was minimum wage, I knew I was only there for some months before starting a career of living outside and being short of food on a professional basis, the job was hard, my co-workers weren’t particularly motivated or smart, but that isn’t the way I was raised.

Bad things happen to a lot of us in life. Jobs are lost. Companies go bust. But you have to Ranger-Up and move on. If you are in your thirties and are in a minimum wage job you really need to assess your life because you shouldn’t be there. No matter what your circumstances you should have developed enough skills to get you above that threshold (there are a few exceptions to this but they are just that: exceptions.) If you find yourself starting over, then for Heaven’s sake don’t bitch about your condition and rely on the government to kiss your boo-boo and make it right. Learn the job. Show some interest in the business. Show some loyalty to your boss. And you won’t stay minimum wage. And you definitely won’t be failing at life.