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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 June 2006, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
The flip side of a McJob
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Shelf stacking - the ultimate McJob?

It is the definition of a low-paying, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job. But is there more to a McJob?

Flipping burgers, stacking shelves, cleaning tables - when Douglas Coupland coined the phrase McJob in his 1991 best-selling book Generation X, it needed little explanation.

Several years on and it has come to define a whole raft of jobs that are viewed as dead-end, low paid and with few prospects.

It is a term McDonald's has been fighting to reclaim and re-brand for years. A few years ago it took exception to the inclusion of the term "McJob" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Its then chairman and chief executive, Jim Cantalupo, wrote an angry open letter to the publisher in which he called the definition inaccurate.

More often than not, it is applied to the service industry. It is a sector that accounted for 82% of the total number of people employed in the UK last year, according to the ONS Labour Market Survey. That's a hell of a lot of people stuck in a supposed career cul-de-sac.

WHAT McWORKERS THINK
Burger
90% show high levels of engagement
85% said job was better than they'd expected
83% had seen positive change in themselves since starting work
74% saw long-term career at McDonald's

But a new academic study challenges people's misconceptions about McJobs. Endless studies have shown that working is good for young people's physical and mental well-being but McJobs are still widely - but wrongly - derided, it says.

The Brighter Futures report suggests that having such a job often has a positive impact on young people's lives. From increased self-esteem to being cleaner around the house, the benefits are both personal and practical.

And far from being brain-dead dropouts, youngsters in the industry are on the whole happy, enthusiastic and very motivated to succeed, says author of the report, Professor Adrian Furnham.

"The youngsters we spoke to started work viewing a McJob like most other people," says the professor of psychology at University College London.

Flaw

"But there is an amazing change in perception once they start. They are happy, motivated and the work gives them confidence and self-esteem. The evidence indicates that these types of jobs are positive for young people."

One such success is Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy, who started stacking shelves in his local branch of the supermarket chain, during the summer holidays, when he was 15.

The study looks at jobs within the service industry in general - from supermarkets to high street stores and fast-food restaurants. But more unusually, researchers also interviewed the young people's managers, friends, family, partners and teachers to get a full picture of how the job had changed them.

Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy
Tesco's Sir Terry Leahy started stacking shelves
Low expectations of what a McJob can offer could account for some of the impressive results - such as 85% of McDonald's staff saying their job was better than they thought it would be - admits Professor Furnham, but job satisfaction and promotion prospects still outstrip the norm.

The real success story is the youngsters who have done poorly in mainstream education and left without any qualifications. Often viewing themselves as only good enough to flip burgers, many flourish and quickly progress in such companies.

The research was conducted independently, but was commissioned by McDonald's. While Generation X did not link the fast-food chain with its description of a McJob, the company accepts the association exists but says the tag is misleading, and demeaning. It says it was prepared to publish the findings of the study - good or bad.

"We've known for years the jobs we offer are good for young people," says David Fairhurst, a vice-president at McDonald's UK. "If we'd based an advertising campaign around it people would quite rightly have challenged us to prove it - now we can. This report is saying is that our jobs transform young people in a positive way - that's not bad for a McJob."

Proof

While there is a high satisfaction rating among service sector staff, the job is far from perfect, say unions. With Sunday trading and longer opening hours, staff often feel pressurised into working unsociable hours, even though they often have a legal right to opt out. Wages can be at the lower end of the scale as well.

It can also be hard to assess just how good or bad major employers in the sector are as some companies - like McDonalds's - are not unionised, says the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW).

"That is the flaw in a report like this," says a spokesman. "There is no independent voice within some big organisations to take an impartial view day-to-day. Some companies talk about in-house consultation groups, but it means very little."

Stacking shelves
Perceived as a 'second-class' career
The Trade Union Congress agrees. "We have a view of what makes a good employer, one factor is that they are prepared to recognise a union. We look forward to McDonald's offering its staff the chance to become union members and welcoming unions into their workplaces," says a spokesman.

But they also agree the service sector is perceived by many to be second-best as a career choice.

"That just isn't the case," says USDAW. "It is very skilled now, with emphasis on training and career advancement. Companies are really keen to bring employees with talent through the system."

Again, it all comes down to the difference between the perception of working in the industry and the reality. One of the best ways to redress that is looking at the success stories.

Laugh

Jason Hersey left school at 16 without any qualifications and little confidence. He got a job at McDonald's and nine years later is now in charge of a store with a turnover of 1.7 million annually and 45 staff. The average wage for a manager is 45,000, plus a car.

"I went into the job so I could get a bit of money to have a laugh with my mates," he says. "My perception was the same as most other people - it was a means to an end and was not going to take me anywhere.

"My mum was just happy I'd got a job but me working for McDonald's wasn't something she was going to sing about to her mates. Now you can't shut her up.

"While other business wouldn't have given me a chance, I showed I was willing to work and they rewarded that. They realise it's not in their interest to hold someone back who wants to do well."


I joined McDonald's at the age of 16 as a part-time crew member in order to save money to go to university. I am still with the company almost three years on and despite what people's perceptions are of the company, we work together as a team and have such a good time on shift. I was very shy when i joined but now people can hardly shut me up! It definately has a positive impact on your confidence and your self-esteem and the flexibility of work is excellent as I can fit it around my uni work ;)
Debbie Mansteed, Edinburgh

I dropped out of University in my second year due to debt. After panicking for a couple of weeks, I got a customer service job in a local call centre (about 10K) simply to pay my overdraft etc. Six years later I'm at the same company, in business sales and have more than trebled my initial salary. I couldn't be happier!
Andrew, Cheshire

I'm afraid for me the McJob myth was true. I worked at McDonald's for three months before beginning university and ended up ill with exhaustion at the end of those three months. I would often be running the till, drive thru and cleaning the shop alone during 12 hour shifts. They often 'forgot' to give me breaks. My shifts were so long that I often failed to see my family and friends for days at a time even though when I started I was told I would only work for 20 hours a week. I can safely say that working at McDonalds was the worst job I have ever had.
Kerry, Cardiff, Wales

So a MacDonalds' funded study finds McJobs are good for you? What a surprise. Zero expectations aren't hard to beat and it all depends on what one means by good doesn't it? It is the propaganda of big business to try and say there's value in such work. That's why education is so important so you don't have to go along with the conceit.
Vincent Campbell, Leicester, UK

I started at 16 years old as a waitress at the Eden Project in Cornwall - in the last five years I have worked up to a Communications Officer Role... and now have a solid career in front of me - my McJob has turned into a McCareer - hows that for all the uni grads that are in debt and expect to just walk into a job?
Jess, Cornwall

I worked for McDonalds for 10 years, I was given opportunity for progression and development at every turn. Every Company/jobs has good and bad points. McDonalds recognised that I had potential, I had to work hard and I was expected to give 110% but I had a lot of fun, I visited 11 Downing street twice through McDonalds, when I decided that McDonalds Management was not for me I was able to re adjust my shift pattern enabling me to go to college to study my CIPD, on completion of my course
Rebekah, Cambridgeshire

There is a slight difference in comparing Sir Terry Leahy to the shelfstackers of 2006. He only stacked shelves during his summer holidays and went on to study at UMIST. I don't feel the same possiblities would be presented to a present day McJober.
Ross Anderson, Edinburgh

I worked for McDonalds for 5 years to support myself through sixth-form & University. I had several promotions that took me from being a crew-member to assistant store manager with lots of training that undoubtedly gave me and edge over other graduates in interviews. Now I'm studying a post-graduate qualification at Cambridge in Public Finance & now work for central government - not bad considering I had a "low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job"!
Rob, Manchester

I can vouch for the pressure on staff members to work extra hours in the service industry. One supervisor I knew would try to get people to cancel their social arrangements to work another shift, usually at the shortest possible notice! Most young people still see the McJob as pocket money to help them through their student years or the 'dropouts' job; but the biggest attitude change needed is that of the employers towards their staff.
Anne-Marie, Warrington

The benefits of 'McJobs' are actually quite numerous. As a student I know many people with such jobs. Student life is such that few can manage without a job of sorts to supplement their loan. These 'McJobs' are the perfect answer. With late opening hours and flexible shift times they are relatively easy to fit into one's lecture timetable. So as well as a secure job for those who possibly can't (or don't want to) work elsewhere, they are also a gift to the student population.
Sarah, Guildford, UK

I was turned down twice for work at McDonalds. I still haven't got over the pain of rejection.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

As a line manager who recruits clerical assistants to work as part of a team - if I see McDonalds on a CV it would almost always guarantee an interview for the candidate. This is because of the strong team building that is encouraged through McDonalds.
Paul, London

I have two jobs: one is a relatively well paid full time office job with one of Britains leading employers in a sector of the UK economy that has recently seen massive expansion in recent years; the second is part-time stacking shelves in a supermarket. Believe me if you want to be motivated,part of a team working towards a common objective, valued, treated with respect, fairness, dignity and courtesy go for the supermarket. The only problems are the relatively low pay and perceived lack of status.
anonymous, Tunbridge Wells

The day when McDonalds allows all of its staff throughout the globe to become members of trade unions is the day when McDonalds become an employer of repute.
anon, Scotland

"The research was conducted independently, but was commissioned by McDonald's". So take the findings with the same amount of salt as you find in their food. Good for young people? Rubbish. McJob stays in the dictionary!
CJ Billson, United Kingdom

Again, this shows that work experience is more important than qualifications. Beyond getting a good set of GCSE's, unless your qualifications are specific to the career you want, they are often pointless. Jason Hersey is 25 and in a management position. Had he gone to Uni he'd have graduated 4 years ago and probably then gone into a "McJob", but taken huge student debt with him.
Matt, Wakefield

Still can't help thinking it's only tolerable to those with little imagination. The one time I ended up in something vaguely similar (for a bit of summer money) I didn't go back after lunch on the first day. It was the most boring few hours of my life. I'd have rather spent the morning watching paint dry.
Simon, Manchester, UK

My brother started working for McDonalds at the age of 16. He didn't do too badly at school but didn't know where he wanted to go in life. Today, at the age of 25, he is an assistant manager and earning around 21,000 a year. To put things into perspective, a newly qualified teacher starts on 19,000 and a Police Officer on around 21,000. Whilst I still think McDonalds have a way to go to be a good employer, my perception of them as an employer is changing.
Robert Slater, East Sussex

I cannot argue with the findings of the report, as I have not read it, but happy and fulfilled youngsters are not ususally what i see if i ever do take the kids to mcdonalds. I feel the whole service industry is full of exploited young people who are over-worked, under-paid, under-appreciated and under-valued. This is not a way of raising self-esteem and value, this is how big companies make big money, and if a report can back up all their "values", then they will publish it and promote it to their own end.
Sharon, Dalkeith, Midlothian, Scotland

And you can't forget about Australian Charlie Bell. He started at McDonalds as a teenager flipping burgers in Sydney and worked his way all the way up to CEO. He tragically died of cancer at the height of his career.
Warwick Andersen, London

There is another positive side to such jobs - they make young people see how bad it can be, and encourage them back in to education in order to improve their prospects!
James, London

Yes McDonalds do have career opportunities, and yes they do push people with the want of progressing in Mcdonalds. It's hard graft for little money, it's completely mind numbing work. You're treated like a 2nd class citizen by the 'supersizers', even though I was probably twice as qualified as the customers. and worst of all you will never get rid of the smell of chip fat!! needlessly to say, I did not continue as a prize McEmployee! a Mcjob, is demeaning and soul destroying!
Hannah, Swindon

My partner works for a supermarket chain, and is expected to work 40+ hours a week despite only being contracted to work 25. He is told by his manager which days he has to work and these vary from week to week. He constantly has to fight to get time off for pre-arranged social events. This company obviously thinks life for its employees consists purely of work and sleep.
Steve, Nottingham, UK

i worked in mcd's when i was 16 for about a year, i am now on very good money and work as a analyst for a top company, having left uni with no qualifications it provided me with experience of fast paced business, although i was serving customers and cooking burgers i was able to piece together the different functions and still apply some knowledge today, i.e. what to do when someone is heated and angry!
jat, slough

While I wouldn't have liked it to be a job I had for my whole life, when I worked part-time at Maccies I had a real laugh. I worked there through college and my first year at uni & there were about 10-15 people there who I'd been to school with & I didn't mind it really. There were days it got on my nerves but no more so than when I worked for Siemens in Sheffield. It wasn't a great job, but it wasn't as bad as the McJob impression of it.
Phil, Tyldesley, Gtr Manchester

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