Journalist John Hand revisits his alma mater
News that McDonald's will offer "A-level grade" training courses has been met with jibes about "McDiplomas" and "McQualifications". But for journalist John Hand, learning the ropes in a fast-food restaurant was a grounding for life.
It's easy to be flippant about flipping burgers at the world's biggest fast food chain. Health aficionados dismiss the food you prepare, conditions in the industry are far from glamorous and the uniform is guaranteed to deter anyone with an ounce of sartorial sense.
But as a teenager trying to scrape my way through sixth-form and then journalism college, my three years as a part-timer at McDonald's in Luton taught me many valuable lessons about life.
YOU GET OUT WHAT YOU PUT IN
If you see a job as meaningless, it will become meaningless. Plenty of my colleagues did just that, making it much easier for me to shine. Within weeks I had the full complement of stars on my badge and was gradually given more managerial responsibilities - training colleagues, stock-taking, cashing-up, even leading shifts with 20-30 colleagues.
That's a fair bit of responsibility for a 16-year-old who'd previously done nothing more challenging than a paper round.
Athlete Carl Lewis
Singer Macy Gray
Ex-White House chief of staff Andrew Card (above, with George Bush)
Amazon boss Jeff Bezos
It is notable that those who have positive things to say about the McDonald's working experience are those who threw themselves into it, without any cynicism.
That means caring deeply about the company's four central tenets - quality, service, cleanliness and value.
I understood the sound business principles behind asking "Is that a large?" or "Do you want fries with that?", so didn't feel at all self-conscious about chanting the then-obligatory mantras at every customer.
I've since learned I was in good company. Andrew H Card, otherwise known as President Bush's chief of staff between 2001 and 2006, has spoken glowingly of his time at the Golden Arches.
"I enjoyed the challenge of adding up the bill before it could be punched on the cash-register buttons," he wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal. "It wasn't long before I became a shift leader and then the night manager. Boy, did I learn how to manage!"
EVERY SECOND COUNTS
The comfortably-salaried may sneer but I found there was always something very honest about a job with an hourly rate where you had to clock in and out, even for (unpaid) breaks.
Timing was everything. There was a premium rate on offer for working beyond 2300 but under-18s had to stop at midnight, so there was an acquired art to getting that all-important "00:00" stamp on your timecard.
As the hours clocked up, they brought a very useful part-time wage. When the time came to leave for a "proper job" in journalism, it actually brought with it a cut in pay.
THERE ARE ALWAYS OPPORTUNITIES
While I spurned the offer to progress my McDonald's career full-time with a place at its "Hamburger University" - formally known as an intensive 18-week Management Development programme - the company says it is possible to have a fulfilling career in fast food.
HISTORY OF ACCUSATIONS
Paid low wages
Discouraged trade union membership
Sent employees home during quiet periods
Attempts to control minutiae of workers' actions
Certainly, its ceaseless global expansion gives adventurous employees a chance to see the world. Shortly before my A-levels, I was given the chance to temporarily decamp to Russia to help train staff at the company's first store in Moscow. The catch was that I would have had to take intensive Russian lessons. I managed to learn a shameful three words before realising my ambitions lay this side of the Baltic sea.
CHECK YOUR TRAINING IS SOUND
Another key lesson I've taken with me from those teenage years at the hot grill is to ensure you take your lead from more than one person.
I had an ever-enthusiastic trainer who just told me to "follow what I do". The fact that she was left-handed and I was impressionable enough to heed her words exactly was a deadly combination. It was only after a fortnight of agonisingly slow burger-flipping and bun-dressing that I worked alongside another colleague who put me right, in more ways than one.
Since then, I've always had the nous when trained how to do something to check whether there is a better or quicker way of completing the job.
RESPECT THE WORLD AROUND YOU
Our store in Luton was in an area with a very large Muslim population, and was one of the first McDonald's outlets to experiment (albeit briefly) with offering halal meat. I was also on a workforce made up of colleagues of various races, religions and ages. I first learned about the observance of Ramadan through colleagues who had to time their meal breaks accordingly.
And as a 16-year-old occasionally managing the work of people sometimes two generations older, I learned that mutual respect is the most important tactic to get the best work from any colleague.
IF THERE'S TIME TO LEAN, THERE'S TIME TO CLEAN
Every spare minute was spent wiping down another surface or mopping a floor, all with the aim of ensuring there was less of a cleaning slog to get through once the final customer had departed.
I also learned quickly that "Ajax is a verb", in the endless pursuit of shiny, never streaky, stainless steel surfaces armed only with a cloth and the eponymous cleaning substance.
PLAN AHEAD... BUT ONLY BY 10 MINUTES
A regular role for me was as production caller, the rather shouty person you see and hear at every busy McDonald's situated between the tills and the kitchen, communicating in strange codes such as "6,4 on the turn" and calculating how many burgers have been cooked at any time to avoid having customers waiting.
67,000 UK staff
75% proud to work at company
Spends £15m a year on training in UK
80% of managers started as hourly-paid crew members
20% of franchisees started as crew
Average tenure for manager is 10 years
Food which then went unsold for more than 10 minutes had to be thrown away so anyone who panicked and overestimated how many Big Macs the post-football crowd would consume risked the wrath of a target-aware manager. A salutary lesson in household management if ever there was one.
YOU'LL NEVER BE THE NEW GUY FOR LONG
Some things never change and McDonald's, like many employers of a similar nature, has always had to contend with high staff turnover.
At least that always meant we had a newly-gullible victim who could be instructed to polish the traffic lights outside the store or count the ice cubes in the ice machine.
The high staff turnover is often used by critics as an indication of low staff morale at McDonald's but the feeling among many of my colleagues was that we were on our way to other careers - I can count a tax inspector and a detective among my former co-workers.
ALWAYS WEAR THE RIGHT SHOES
Health and Safety might frown on such behaviour in these more enlightened times, but I kept a pair of shoes with especially slippery soles for my shifts behind the McDonald's counter.
With them, I could glide at speed around the restaurant floor and deliver orders at (near) breakneck speed. They became my secret weapon as I whizzed into the final of Till Person of the Year (held at the country's busiest store on the busiest Saturday before Christmas).
I didn't win but I'm sure those shoes are still around somewhere any time I need to react to some fast-breaking news.
Here is a selection of your comments.
No matter what you think of McDonalds, surely coming out of the job with some form of qualification that can be used to get another (better) job must be a plus.
John Fielder, Workington
My 2 weeks at McDonalds when I was 16, were probably the worst 2 working weeks of my life, however I do now respect the fact that it's an extremely hard job to do, day in day out. I don't think the general public realise how much work actually goes into getting their burger from the grill to their stomach!
Jay, Northampton, England
This is so true! I am always saddened when I meet people complaining about 'pointless' jobs - I never worked in McDonalds but I have done every lowly office role you can think of when temping as a student and I learnt so much that has stood me in good stead in my career, mostly about the way offices work, about office politics and how to treat people.
Zoe, Bristol, UK
I agree with the respect point wholeheartedly. I remember going into a McDonald's just before closing having had a hungry day, and asking what was ready, and specifically if they had any fries left. They didn't, but because I'd made a point of being aware that they all wanted to close up and go home, they made me some fresh.
My first real job was with MacDonald's, as a shy retiring teen, it forced me out of my shell and gave me the social and life skills that schools don't really get the opportunity to teach.
Laura , Horsham
McDs was my first real job where i worked my way up to a Area Manager (floor manager) The skills i learnt i have taken with me to my other jobs and i will always remember how to ajax and deploy CAYG!
Katie, Leamington Spa
I could have written that article myself - it was like a trip down memory lane. Who can forget Ajax? As I am about to move on my career, I glance back at those heady student days earning £2.70/hour at Maccie D's. Those days were great life learning days, you deal with all walks of life and learn so many different jobs and the real value of proper hard work. I particuarly enjoyed the kids parties, what a great way to get paid, having a jolly good laugh of a Sunday afternoon! - and no, nobody dresses up as Ronald McDonald. The best thing: You meet friends for life and experience a camaraderie like nowhere else... happy times!
Andrew Ching, Worcester (store #145 ;) )
Working for McDonalds does so much good for young people. Perhaps everyone should have the experience and then maybe they would see the job more respectfully. Like National Service, McDonalds teaches young people plenty about the real world, something everyone needs to learn.
Mark Ladson, Hull, England
I agree wholeheartedly with all the comments. As a starting ground for youngsters, this gives them an insight into a good and dedicated working environment and teachers and all round, muck in and get on with it mentatility.
jeanette thompson, Surrey
I only lasted half a day at MCDonalds, so I admire anyone who can stick it out! It's a harder job than it looks. It's physically challenging and the tills and menus can be quite complicated.
Most people who work at McD's don't want a career in fast food restaurant management but it is a good stepping stone to other things. It is the modern equivelant of the paper round. Any job can be seen as meaningless, and where would all those who sneer get their burgers from anyway?
There will always be lower waged jobs, which are taxing in many respects, but there is a difference between those with value (e.g. working in a care home, caring for those that need it), and those that are valueless (e.g. working in McDonald's, feeding those that don't need it).
Nick, Brighton, UK
I agree whole heartedly and have often mentioned my time at McDonalds as a great grounding. I have gone on to have a successful management career in another business, but the lessons I learnt as a teenager have remained useful to this very day.
Been a restaurant owner for over 20yrs, don't under value such "so call" pointless jobs, for a 15-17yrs old, this is their first taste of learning a real social and communication skills, learn to deal with customers and colleagues, those skills they learnt at this early age will help them as they work in thier later life.
Tony Chan, Darwen, Lancs, UK
I quite agree. All jobs are boring sometimes, doing them as well as you can, and putting 100% effort in makes the day go quicker, gives you a better relationship with colleagues and customers and will always lead to better things. Linda
Linda O'Connor, London England
I worked in McDonalds as a teenager and learnt a lot about teamwork, working under pressure and above all that I wanted to get some qualifications and not have to do that for the rest of my life. That said, they were a fair employer and I was grateful to have a flexible part time job whilst I studied! I am fed up with people slagging off "Mcjobs" - at least people who work there aren't sponging off the state! GOOD ON THEM.
Emily , London
This highlights to me that anyone evev if they start working McD's at 16 can carve a career for themselves. Mc'D's undoubtly provide a spring board into employment/career which can be siezed upon if the individual wants to grab it. It's all a question of the work ethic and the application thereof. The problem is what percentage of todays 15 - 18 year olds have this ethic? I'm not going to even try and predict this figure. I'll leave it to the individual to make their own judgement.
Simon Marsden, Manchester
The fact that training in the workplaces can lead to qualifications is a good thing, as it will help people who, for whatever reason, do not want to study at college or university to get their skills accredited.
Karl Chads, London, UK
I work at pizza hut and i find that you get out what you put in, you have to work for anything in life i just wished that pizza hut offered the same A-Level qualifications.
I cant understand why people would critisise working in McDonalds - it is one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world. You can learn loads about business and the working environment and one of the most valuable things for young people is to learn how to work with people from all walks of life. What is important is that we dont confuse vocational education, which is about learning a skill, with academic education, which is about broadening our horizons and leaning to apply oneself as much as it is about gaining knowledge.
Justin , London
I worked in a store for 4 and a half years, wWorking my way up from Crew Member to Manager whilst putting myself through University and am always proud to say I did it. Is it the most glamorous job? No, but it's decent hard work and so many young people could benefit from that nowadays. Like every job it had it's ups and down but the crew were one of the hardest working I've ever known and also one of the happiest.
David , Northampton
I'm sixteen and do currently have a part-time job at McDonalds, combined with my Sixth Form education. I've been there roughly 8 months now, and am loving every minuite of it.
I hate it when my peers look down upon McDonalds, they fail to realise how valued the "McJob" is. I can name a few people who've moved onto bigger and better things from McDonalds, a philosiphy teacher at a university to name but one.
Anyway, McDonalds shouldn't be looked down upon, it gives young people vaulable lessons in life, and the world of work, something that schools simply can't offer. I'd reccomend it to any sixteen year-old looking for a job.
Tom G, Carmarthenshire
I spent 3 miserable years in McDonalds. The Misery was caused by jumped up idiots who thought they were gods gift to management forcing horrible tasks on you with impossible timescales to do them in. I will never set foot in one again, not even if I was about to soil myself!
Tom King, Sheffield
I worked in McDs during 6th form, moved branches while doing my degree then was welcomed back to my old branch while looking for a 'proper' job. And I had a great time! It was really hard work & the hours were rubbish but was definitely character building. I agree with Laura - you came across people you never would in your everyday life & were the better for it.
started at 89p/hour, back in late 70s and moved on to a successful career in management, on my recent visit to India gave some advise to failing restaurant manager, spoke to him about QSC p.s. still remember the temparature of the filet o fish fryer. (sad i know)
I worked whilst I was at College, and when I saw the accusations list it immediatally reminded me of when I worked the, pay was 20p above minimum wage at the time, but when the NMW went up, wages didn't. I'll always remember management when I was talking about trade unions and joining one, only to be told "you're not allowed, it's written in your contract." Granted it was a franchise store, which from my experience lets the standards slip.
Jamie Smith, Great Yarmouth
I whole-heartedly agree! I never worked at McDonalds but had equally 'lowly' jobs as a teen-ager and throught Uni. I fully recoginze that these jobs were some of the most important and formative experiences of my youth. These days I see younger people coming to work without ever having had a job before and really lacking in a good attitude and work ethic.
Sol, New York
Well said, John. A very demanding place to work, but excellent experience. 'Don't relax when you can ajax' and the clarion call of 'Cheese on till 6' when a pretty girl in the queue was spotted - great memories!
Spot on! Just because these are jobs that people snobbishly dismiss as beneath them, it doesn't mean that McDonalds can't be a rich learning environment. I learnt a lot when I spent part of my Gap year working in a KFC restaurant, some of which I refer to 12 years later in my current marketing career. If we can develop customer service to something approaching the standards of countries like the US then Britain will be a much better place.
Andrew, Surrey, England
I agree with Mark of Hull, McD's is like National Service. It's dangerous, pointless, it's an oppotuinity for those with money to get those without to do cruddy work they don't want to and you get the chance to be shouted at. Working for a company such as Mc D's teaches you nothing about the real world as it exsists purely in its own bubble, even employing its own lexicon of terms "Hamburger Univesity"? ah yes that well known redbrick institution, that bastion of academia.
If you ignore Mc D's it will go away.
J Leigh, Brighton
We may all snigger at the idea of a qualification from McDonalds but at least they are trying to give their employees some form of reward and a way to better themselves. Similarly we should applaud those who want to take on the responsibility of a job and achieve more than one star on their badge, rather than going out and causing mayhem or being unemployed!!
I currently work at Mcdonalds and have done for the past year and a half. And it has to be said that the experience you get from working at Mcdonalds depends on how your store is run. If the people your work with then the job is enjoyable but if you don't get the training you want and see no real promotion prospects ,your managers don't enforce the rules and lead by bad examples then your job becomes chaos and unloveable. Im not lovein it :(
David Collett , Blackpool
I echo the author's sentiments, I had three years part-time, albeit in KFC, and learnt a lot about customer skills, time management and stock management. Mel Gibson started out at KFC too, I'll have you know.
Jonny Bung, London
There are no perfect jobs. A job is what you make it. If you choose to have a good attitude and do your best whether mopping floors, flipping burgers, or answering phones, you will be satisfied. Satisfaction comes from a job well done.
I've been a part-timer at McDonald's for 5 years now whilst doing my own A-levels and first 3 years at university, and it has to be said that McDonald's training is very good, they use various learning techniques and the training courses for the managers, which I followed too 4 3 years ago, are pretty rewarding. It's unfair to discriminate against these valid forms of education just because of the company's name.
Mark P, Cambridgeshire
Am a little bit older now and would like to think doing pretty well, travel the world, have an excelletn job that I enjoy. But my first job was at McDonalds and it saw me through the 6th form and uni. I have to say I enjoyed it, I met some great people all in a similar position to me trying to scrape our way through college. But one thing for sure it made me respect hard work and business values. I will always respect anyone who works in the 'fast food industry' as who knows that person could be a doctor of the future. Infact at my store there was a number of students from med school!!
Alistair, London, UK
When I worked in recruitment, I hired a lot of 18-22 year olds. The difference in the ones who'd worked in McDonald's was striking. They were keen, polite, enthusiastic, customer-focussed and wanted to learn. I wouldn't fancy it myself - or any kitchen job, to be honest - but it clearly gives a good grounding.
None of the above "lessons" make McDonalds special. You can get all of that from any honest work. Often without having to peddle greasy rubbish.
Personally, I only enter their premesis to use the loo.
Pete Nightingale, Reading
Agree with every point made. I spent 3 years from 16-19, and followed the similar path of crew member - trainee manager, however opting out for opportunities elsewhere. Its fantastic grounding for a massive range of different careers. I still find time to defend the place to this day, usually when talking to people who didn't have to get a part-time job, and base all their opinions on the negative press.
I'd rather work in any other place than a fast food joint. I don't want to be providing the poor with even more rubbish food. You can learn these skills in any part-time first job.
I'm 18 and I work part-time in McDonalds. I have an unbelievably busy life and McDonalds give me the flexibility I need. They also give me time off when I need it and extra shifts in holidays. It's hard work and customers can be horrible but it's an experience everyone should have. I've made some really good friends at work and learnt some skills I'll always need. And I'll never forget CAYG and how to Ajax correctly!
In Romania in the 90s McD's recruited graduates who could speak English and fast-tracked a lot of them to management. This was a great stepping stone for many - a fast way to learn western business management. One of them, a close friend of mine went on to work in several western banks as they opened in Romania, and now manages a large city branch of one of Romania's largest banks! So there can be great value in using this sort of work in gaining experience - and now hopefully recognisable qualifications
WOW!! What a well researhed writing,very impressed!
Totally understand the slippery shoes ,and till person of the year!!I left 9 years ago,and feel that McDonalds should be part of the curriculum,fantastic training,fantastic lesson in life,loved every bit of it,every hoodie should have to do it,(and do it with meaning )
Loved the article,long live McDonalds (although have to admit,have banned the kids from eating it!!!!)
I work at McDonalds in Burgess Hill and I really do agree with everything that has been written here.
Working there is such a laugh and it prepares you for working with loads of different ethnicity groups. Which not only has helped with my Sociology A level so far it's also going to help when I do Theology and Religious Studies at University.
I think that because of the way that we're trained and how atriculate everything is, most other leaders of a company would hire us simply because we've been trained so well.
Our managers at Burgess Hill are excellent, and all of them but (apart from 1) have risen up through being at Burgess Hill. Sometimes you can come across rubbish managers, but our managers have always got the know how and they are managers for the right reasons.
The other day a new employee tried to outsmart one of them about it being "fast food" ...cutting a long story short, the manager knew his stuff and just made sure that he won the "argument" in an encouraging way.
Edward Graham-Hyde, Burgess Hill
I've had some unglamourous 'dead end' jobs in my time - cleaning public toilets, scrubbing pots etc - but none worse than McDonalds. Maybe I had a bad branch but I found the 'values' a total sham, along with any concept of hygiene and quite frankly knowing what goes into the food means I have not touched any of it since! I fully agree with the comments above about jumped up idiot managers. (eg - burn from fry, I was told to 'put a pickle on it') A horrible, horrible place to be!
I worked in McDs as a student. I made the mistake of being the best burger flipper in the store so I spent pretty much every shift getting covered from head to toe in grease down one side of me. So I never got those stars but it was a decent enough place to work.
"IF THERE'S TIME TO LEAN, THERE'S TIME TO CLEAN"
Found out that's not quite true when it's 7:30am, you've only had to serve 2 customers and there's absolutely no cleaning needing to be done.
The only thing of any value I learnt from my time at McD's is that management types don't always automatically qualify for your respect. They still have to earn it.
William Forbes, Middlesbrough, Britian
I worked for McDonalds when I was 16 for four weeks. I was so exhausted working long shifts that I needed 2 weeks recovery. The job is extremley stressful and the pressure is so high in serving as many customers as you can. Big resepct for those BIG MAC providors!
I spent 2 years while at 6th form working at mcdona;ds before going on to train to be a nurse. before my time there i was a shy retiring wouldn't say boo to a goose kinda girl and it gave me confidence to mix in other circles and with people. i enjoyed wortking there as i made lots of friends and had a good social life. i also progresed up the ladder and had a respect for the work ethic they employed at the time. (this was late 80's) there were a lot of students there as well so i think that helped. i was asked to stay on a go to hmaburger uni but declined as didn't want a career in fast food and i don't regret that. although i now do not eat in Mcdonalds due to ethical reasons, i do think that i learnt alot from them. so if they are offering 'A' level type qualifaications is only a good thing as like the articel said if you think something is meanigless it willbecome so.
I used to be rather flippant myself, until my girlfriend told me what she had got out of her experiences at McDonalds. Her story is almost identical to that in the article. Of course, they tried to retain her but she chose years of studying, a PhD and medical research instead. Perhaps though it is a sad indictment of the public policy towards medical research in the UK that only now, nearly a decade and a half on, have her earnings are finally catching up with what she would have earned had she chosen a career in fast food. Is it any surprise that there aren't enough people working in science, looking for those breakthrough medical treatments we are demanding. That said, knowing what I know now, I wouldn't knock a career with McDonalds!
I worked in McDonalds when back when I was 16 and in sixth form. My training was rubbish. I had some polish guy who barely spoke english training me. He didn't know what he was doing himself. Half the other employees that were there were idiots who were in the bottom of the class or were expelled. Within a week of working there, I was immediately promotod to a Team Leader. After about another couple of weeks I was eventually promoted to manager with the promise that I had a brilliant career in the fast food industry. McDonalds was rubbish. My experiance proves that any idiot can qualify as manager in McDonalds. I Highly doubt that any self respecting company would take seriously a diploma from McDonalds.
Ed Jenkins, Exeter
I worked at McDs for about 3 weeks when I was 18 during a student vacation. Truly dreadful. My local store was managed by small-minded people with enormous egos and no management talent. I switched to catering in Pontins and that was probably the most enjoyable job of my life despite having a professional, well-paid career now. Happy days.
I lasted 2 days at McDonalds before deciding to quit; it's a demeaning job where the staff are regarded as nothing more than meat to the grinder.
Kudos to anyone who can survive in that madhouse, but there's no real lesson (working there) which can't be learnt in any other part time job.
alan, Glasgow, Scotland
I worked for Mcdonlands when i was sixteen. Previously homeless and having gone through some forms of social accomodation and with a very low outlook on life. The job was, to this day, harder than any job including tree surgery i have had since. The respect it taught me for myself, pride in my work and belief in others reaching their abilities can never be in question. All the lessons i learnt at Maccy'Ds i have carried with me and now i own my own company. These grades can only be a good thing. Regardless of your feelings of the brand this is positive for youths of today and for business and ultimately the country.
ian handy, Guildford / Walton-On-Thames