When I heard that McDonald's planned to hire 50,000 people next Tuesday, I thought it was a sign of reluctance by suburban kids to enter the workforce by wearing the Golden Arches.
I'm one of the many Americans who have worked at a McDonald's, which puts me in the company of Jay Leno, Carl Lewis, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Andie MacDowell and Macy Gray. But it's a bigger group than that. Some estimates suggest that as many as 10 percent of Americans once did likewise.
I have a vivid recollection of the grand opening of the Doylestown, Pa., McDonald's in 1977, during my sophomore year of high school. There was a line out the door formed by those seeking jobs, and I was initially rejected because I was only 15. Eventually I ended up working for two years as a part-time maintenance man. That exterior duty wasn't all bad. Some days a friend and classmate named Fran Pileggi would take pity on me and hand me an Egg McMuffin as I walked past the drive-through.
McDonald's was a wonderful learning experience. It was the first time I punched a clock, earned a paycheck, felt the brunt of taxes, learned the necessity of rotating stock to guarantee (bun) freshness, and received a raise. Which is why I was worried when I first heard that McDonald's is having a national hiring day. The company says the need comes from a rebounding economy and expanded hours at some locations. Still, I had my doubts.
Unemployment is near 9 percent, but anecdotally it seems that once-intermittent job-opening signs are now permanent. My theory was that middle-class teens think of McDonald's as a dirty job.
Mike Anton said otherwise. He's a McDonald's franchisee who owns Pennsylvania restaurants in Jamison, Bensalem, Southampton, Feasterville and Dresher, as he now seeks approval to build in Newtown.
"All of my restaurants with exception of Bensalem would be considered suburban, and we have been extremely successful in hiring young people from within the community, as well as being able to retain them," he said.
Anton added that many brothers and sisters also get hired, and in some cases so are children of onetime McDonald's employees. He's living proof. His 36- and 39-year-old sons work for him in the family business and are both approved McDonald's operators. Nationally, 15 percent of McDonald's owners in the United States started in the restaurants. So did 70 percent of U.S. managers, 50 percent of all U.S. corporate employees, and 30 percent of the company officers.
Anton's franchises typically have a staff of 50 to 60 per store, and he says about half the current workforce is local and under age 22. On average, his employees earn above $9 per hour.
"We are not replacing people," he says.
Anton said the company needed to hire because new products were being introduced and the business was growing. The boost is also likely attributable to people eating more cheaply in a down economy.
In 2000, Ron Gentile bought the Doylestown McDonald's where I worked and one in Plumsteadville. He has been involved with McDonald's since 1991. Four years ago, a high school classmate of mine, Chuck Reid, renovated a store for him as one of six nationally approved seating and decor suppliers for the U.S. market.
Gentile told me that students from my alma mater (Central Bucks West) and its rivals (CB East and South) still get hired. He could not confirm the urban legend that Pink was one of them.
"In the summer we put on 30 to 40 additional high school kids and college kids, some who work as managers when they come back from Penn State, Temple, and other schools."
He said he believed that in some families the idea of students working at McDonald's had fallen out of favor, but those days are over.
What changed? The economy.
"I grew up in the '50s and '60s and the work ethic I received was like yours. You went to work to earn money to support your needs. Then it fell out of favor when the economy was hot in the '90s. Parents gave their kids many things instead of letting them earn it. And status was a factor. They wanted children to be on a higher level. Parents would say it's beneath you to do that job. But in this decade, that culture has changed."
Good to hear.
Not only was my "unwillingness of suburban kids" theory off, but so too was my advice to Anton that the company was best when it stuck to burgers and fries.
"Oatmeal is the new big thing," he said, and told me operators can't wait for the introduction of frozen strawberry lemonade.
I think I'll stick to talking and writing.
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.