It started when I read Nickel and Dimed, in which Atlantic contributor Barbara Ehrenreich denounces the exploitation of minimum-wage workers in America. Somehow her book didn’t ring true to me, and I wondered to what extent a preconceived agenda might have biased her reporting. Hence my application for a job at the nearest Wal-Mart.He goes on
The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.So life at Wal-Mart may not be as bad as some would have us believe.
My standard equipment included a handheld bar-code scanner which revealed the in-store stock and nearest warehouse stock of every item on the shelves, and its profit margin. At the branch where I worked, all the lowest-level employees were allowed this information and were encouraged to make individual decisions about inventory. One of the secrets to Wal-Mart’s success is that it delegates many judgment calls to the sales-floor level, where employees know first-hand what sells, what doesn’t, and (most important) what customers are asking for.
Several of my co-workers had relocated from other areas, where they had worked at other Wal-Marts. They wanted more of the same. Everyone agreed that Wal-Mart was preferable to the local Target, where the hourly pay was lower and workers were said to be treated with less respect (an opinion which I was unable to verify). Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators where, I was told, employees had to deal with quixotic management policies, while lacking the opportunities for promotion that exist in a large corporation.
Of course, I was not well paid, but Wal-Mart is hardly unique in paying a low hourly rate to entry-level retail staff. The answer to this problem seems elusive to Barbara Ehrenreich, yet is obvious to any teenager who enrolls in a vocational institute. In a labor market, employees are valued partly according to their abilities. To earn a higher hourly rate, you need to acquire some relevant skills.