Chopping Off the Lowest Rung of the Economic Ladder

Sep 6, 2016 | Uncategorized

What was your first job?

Mine was doing yard work for the local neighborhood grocer at age 9. A short time later we moved to the country. For the next decade I worked for area farmers clearing brush, shelling corn, weeding soybeans, throwing hay, detassling seed corn, and castrating hogs. I’ve shoveled more tons of soupy piggy manure than anybody else I personally know.

I did janitorial work at night during high school. In the summers I spent a lot of time pushing and riding lawn mowers at my local high school and painting buildings. Later I worked as a construction labor then as a carpenter in Houston and as a grunt on a railroad section crew swinging a spike hammer and lugging around railroad ties.

All of these jobs involved hard manual labor. Most of them I wouldn’t want to do again, and most of them I physically couldn’t do. The thing is, I am grateful for every one of those jobs and the people who gave them to me.

My path isn’t unique; a bit smelly, perhaps, but not unique. Most of us started out doing ‘kid jobs’ like this. They taught us skills, both hard and soft, honed our work ethic and gave us a sense of pride for earning our own way.

Are we stealing all of this from today’s young people?

I ask this in the context of the efforts by labor unions to dramatically increase the minimum wage is cities and states around the country.

The unions have their own self-serving agendas for pushing wages up. But for many people, the idea of ‘helping’ people get a livable wage by mandating higher wages seems noble.

Those sentiments are currently in play in Colorado as voters are being asked to approve Amendment 70, a proposed phased-in increase of the state’s minimum wage to $12 by 2020.

A key argument for mandating higher wages is that it’s good for the economy because people will have more money to spend. The hole in this is that short-term benefits, if any, evaporate quickly as employers adjust to the new politically imposed costs by raising prices on customers, or reducing their workforce, or adjusting employee hours, or reducing employee benefits, or increasing training to improve productivity, or adding equipment to replace people, or some combination of these. In extreme cases, some will cease operations.

The money needed to dramatically increasing wages has to come from somewhere. We all end of paying for it in the ways cited above.

But the real hardship of a minimum wage increase falls on the young. That’s because it is hard for employers to justify hiring someone with no skills and workplace experience at an inflated price.

Here’s hoping that people think about the unintended consequences of mandating big wage increases, particularly about how that impacts the emerging workforce. For many young people the minimum wage will not be $12 per hour, it will be $0.

Originally published in The Fort Collins Coloradoan on September 4, 2016.