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Skills and Wages

Sitting on the throne and thinking about wages . . .
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I was reading Don Rennick’s piece in our other local news purveyor concerning the proposed minimum wage. He offered the thought that if would-be workers increased or improved their skills they would automatically receive higher wages. It is a good practise to improve oneself in any case; however I think it unrealistic to trust in the altruism of business owners. They are trying to sell goods and services at competitive prices so they can make a buck. Wages, being one of their cost components, are going to be as low as possible to achieve the production or services that the customer wants and for which the customer is willing to pay. Showing the boss your new diploma may not get you more than a congratulatory handshake.

Workers over the ages have always sought higher wages for the service they perform. Unions helped in the bargaining process and even governments have a place in setting wages as they want their taxpayers to be happy in their work. Happy enough to pay taxes, that is. Certainly wages have to keep up with the cost of living and inflation. As Rennick points out though, raising the minimum wage may add to the inflationary cycle and in the end we all pay more.

I thought I recalled writing a piece about minimum wages and sure enough, back in 2004 I did have a piece about it. It is in the archives – January 2004. Not much has changed during the past 13 years. The minimum wage has moved up, but then so has the cost of everything else. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Improving your skill set should place you in line for promotion or other opportunities but there are only so many jobs available. Sometimes we have to search further afield for a position that matches our skill set. As our young people here in the Bay find out, that is something they must do. We have all heard the stories about university graduates having to serve coffee, work at filling stations or labour at some job for which they are over-qualified. Someone needs to fill these minimum wage jobs and perhaps these jobs do provide a training ground or stepping-stone to the future. Or they might be a position for older people who need work and even a minimum wage to supplement their income.

Working for a minimum wage for 40 hours a week might have a level of acceptance but some canny business owners have found that by using part-time help can they can reduce their wage and benefits costs. Before we have bad thoughts about these entrepreneurs stop and think that we the customer often benefit from this by paying just a little less for our coffee, burger or gasoline.

Technology and innovation have changed the workplace, perhaps more quickly in the past ten or fifteen years than any other time. Only those people who have kept their education and skills apace can hope to move ahead in both position and wages. Those who have not been able to do this are faced with starting over, which is not easy when you are approaching the middle or later years of your life. Perhaps it is these people who from necessity have to find those minimum wage jobs.

The thing is, it is not necessarily a bad thing to work at a minimum wage – as training for later jobs. I started my first job away from home as a junior clerk at the General Store in Nipissing village. With my lack of skills and young age they paid me the princely sum of 36 cents per hour for the first summer. I got a 10% wage increase the next year but by then I knew how to fill shelves, cut pork chops, slice wedges of cheese, pump gas and what kind of feed to deliver to Mr Stillar for his chickens. Shy as I was, I learned to speak to people and help them with their purchases. Even then I knew I did not want a career as a store clerk but I do admit that the thought of owning a store might not have been a bad idea.

As far as that diploma or degree – it will eventually pay off as long as you are willing to show that you can perform. Having a minimum wage job on your resume can be a good thing as long as you bring a positive attitude with you on your interview day.

In the meantime, before the minimum wage comes into effect, I wonder what would be the customer attitude if businesses posted what they pay their employees on a sign in their place of business. Would you feel more kindly towards an employee if you knew they were only making $8.00 an hour with no benefits and no guarantee of hours per week? Of course the owner could post his own sign that says, “Yeah, and I lost $30,000 last year!”

This redistribution of wealth is a tricky thing.