Big Mac Strikes Back

Burger bashers, watch out! McDonald's is on a roll

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Instead of viewing McDonald's jobs as a replacement for lost industrial work, other economists see the company serving a different but still valuable role as an employer of the marginal members of the work force: ghetto youths, undergrads working their way through college, displaced homemakers and retired people. What makes McDonald's attractive for those employees are the highly flexible work hours and on-the-job training. McDonald's is the biggest trainer of workers in the U.S., having employed at one time or another an estimated 7% of all current U.S. workers, or about 8 million people. For job seekers with almost nothing to put on their resume, a stint at McDonald's counts for something. "People who have worked at McDonald's make excellent bank tellers," attests Robert Wilmers, chairman of Manufacturers & Traders Trust in Buffalo.

McDonald's constantly shifts along with the changes in the U.S. work force. For example, the post-baby boom shortage of McDonald's traditional workers, suburban teens, has prompted the company to recruit older workers through a program called McMasters. Roughly 10% of McDonald's workers are over 50, and 5% are over 60. At 83, Anne LaFave wields a mop as a cleaning worker at a ( Chicago outlet, a job she has held for seven years. Says she: "I have a whole new family, all the kids in the store. I'm happy to stay busy."

While McDonald's employees generally praise their working conditions and the respect accorded them by their bosses, they find the wages inadequate to support one person, much less a family. Rick Laviak, 16, who has worked at a suburban San Diego outlet for more than a year, enjoys his job but thinks his $3.60-an-hour wage is meager considering that he gets no food discount and is expected to act as a teacher for new employees. Says he: "They want me to be a crew trainer without the pay." Partly for that reason, turnover among hourly workers at McDonald's outlets is high, sometimes nearly 100% a year.

Yet the jobs are not necessarily dead-end ones, since each McDonald's outlet offers a career path of salaried jobs in which store managers typically earn $25,000 and junior managers $12,000 to $17,000. And managers can aspire to opening their own McDonald's, since most of the chain's restaurants are started by individual entrepreneurs. The initial investment in a franchise outlet is typically $325,000, but the return can be high. Other ambitious store managers can move up to Illinois headquarters, where almost 40% of executives got their start flipping hamburgers. The company employs relatively few M.B.A.s.

But whatever McDonald's social value as an employer, its impact on America's nutrition remains controversial. One of the perennial criticisms of McDonald's is the fat, sugar and salt content of its menu. The Quarter Pounder with Cheese, for example, contains an estimated 1,220 mg of sodium, which for a person on a strict low-salt diet might exceed an entire day's allotment. Yet during the past several years the company has tried to improve its food's nutritional value, in part by reducing the fat and salt content of some items. In a current advertising campaign, McDonald's says it has lowered the sodium level of its pork sausage by 32% and its pickles by 21%. Last year the company started frying its fish and chicken in pure vegetable shortening instead of animal fat, which lowers the cholesterol level significantly.

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