Hiring 50,000 Employees to Redefine a McJob? Good Luck With That

McDonald’s is planning to hire 50,000 employees in a nationwide event on April 19, and to be honest, I’m not lovin’ it:

To nab the attention of top-flight candidates, the Oak Brook-based burger giant is tackling the image of a “McJob.” That means a weeks-long advertising and public-relations campaign leading up to April 19, when McDonald’s Corp. plans to hire 50,000 store-level employees.

McDonald’s hopes to get across the message, much as Starbucks Corp. has successfully done, that a job with it is not a dead end and can offer solid benefits and long-term career opportunities, which the company says already are available to its 600,000 restaurant employees in the U.S.

A week long PR blitz and marketing stunt is not the way to change the perception of the McJob.

An easy target

Like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s is an easy target. While part of the company’s philosophy appeals to my capitalist ideals (focusing on unapologetic efficiency, delivery, and consistency), other parts make me shake my head. It’s too easy to go tangental on McDonald’s impact on health, culture and economics in the U.S., so let’s focus on what’s important in this particular discussion: their jobs.

Since 2003, the term McJob has been listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.” Of course, McDonald’s was none too happy with that characterization saying at the time:

In an open letter published in the November 3 edition of the trade journal, Nation’s Restaurant News, McDonald’s chief executive officer Jim Cantalupo expressed his anger at the “demeaning,” definition, calling it a “slap in the face to the 12 million men and women who work hard every day in America’s 900,000 restaurants.”

But is it a fair characterization?

A look at McJobs

As noted in this Chicago Tribune article, many of the people who work at McDonald’s corporate offices in Oak Brook, Illinois, as well as many of their senior leaders, started at the store level (including McDonald’s USA president Jan Fields and McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner). To say there is no opportunity at McDonald’s is certainly false, but let’s be honest — there are a lot of people vying for few spots and while you try to vy for those key spots, you have to work under less than ideal conditions.

In comparison, there is certainly opportunity to play basketball professionally if you play in high school, but the chances get slimmer and slimmer as you move up. Even including opportunities internationally, there are only around 1,000 slots for the millions who play basketball at the amateur level. Sure, you can get a shot at the big time, but you have to play for nothing or pocket change for a long time for even a small chance.

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In spite of opportunity, there are other less than appealing things about working for McDonald’s. For one, their jobs are designed to be low skill. The genius of Ray Kroc was taking an assembly line efficiency and consistency to making food. McDonald’s employs a revolving door of low wage, assembly workers in their stores.

On another note, McDonald’s benefits are generally not on par with Starbucks, the main company they hope to target in this move. I say generally because I know some franchises do offer a more competitive benefits plan. For potential employees with kids, that’s a tough spot to be put in. And considering the political flak that Walmart has received for having many employee’s and kids on state subsidized health roles, it is particularly unpopular.

Effectiveness of a hiring and PR surge

How will the advertising campaign and hiring surge impact people’s perception of a McJob? Erasing decades of bias about a particular company or job in a week has no precedent of success. People build these views over years along with countless opportunities for confirming such bias.

If McDonald’s wants to rebrand the McJob moniker, they are going to have to make actual changes to the job itself, not just repackage it into something new or different (something that McDonald’s is brilliant at doing).

More competitive pay and benefits, real opportunities, and true differentiation from competitors could help. It also may include things that may increase the price of a Big Mac a nickel or a dime (something they’ve hesitated on doing) but doing so would help make a real reversal of the view on their jobs, not just a flash in the pan marketing stunt.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.