More than a fry cook: Getting a fast food job taught responsibility and even changed perspectives

Customers at McDonald's
Life behind the McDonald's counter doesn't sound glamorous, but it teaches teens responsibility.
When you think of an employee at McDonald’s, you probably don’t think “successful business person material.” Most people think “lazy,” “teenager,” “slacker” and “unmotivated.”

If someone had told me five years ago that I’d be working at McDonald’s in the future, I would have laughed out loud.

And yet, after more than two years of working at the McDonald’s in my hometown of River Falls, Wis., I’ve discovered that the job allowed me to develop a strong sense of responsibility while exploring important tasks I wouldn’t have ever learned to do.

As a teenager living in a small town, I was lucky to get a job at all. I was one of the first of my friends to get a job when I started working at McDonald’s at 15—the earliest they hire. I hated it at first.

I thought that I would never learn how to work the computers, man the fry station or take orders in the back window while paying out the customers. I was overwhelmed, confused and more than a little scared.

On my first day there, I literally stood in a corner for five minutes—unable to move—because I was convinced that one of the employees would trample me in their haste to carry out duties. My mind was racing with thoughts like, “Will I ever learn to do this?” and “How do they keep track of everything?”

I must have looked terrified because I received a lot of sympathy, and some even said, “First day, huh?” I could only nod.

GAINING PERSPECTIVE

I worked that day for about three hours and I was mentally and physically exhausted by the time I went home. There was so much information. Rules and regulations were swirling around in my mind and I was seeing McChickens floating before my eyes.

But I had done it. I had survived my first day. And it’s only been uphill from there.

Now, after working there for two years, it’s a breeze. I can take orders like nobody’s business. I’m a pro at the fry station. What once looked difficult has become the easiest thing in the world for me.

But it’s not all that great and nice.

Hypocrisy isn’t a good look on anyone, but to prove my point, I must use it. I become offended when people constantly judge McDonald’s. Even though I did it when I was younger, it still bothers me when others look down on a fast food job.

Just a month ago in my economics class, my teacher said, “Economics is all about choices. Like, for example, would you rather work at Apple or at McDonald’s?” The entire class laughed, and one kid even said, “Is that even a question?” And it bothered me.

Working in a place like McDonald’s forces me to think quickly, act quickly and smile while doing it. But it’s a stressful environment. Managers talking loudly, customers looking annoyed, beeping alarms and blinking lights—it can often be too much.

Since McDonald’s is known for being fast with its service, when someone messes up, it’s not a good thing. I’ve had my fair share of customers getting angry, managers being disappointed, and I’ve even cried at work a couple of times.

But I’m only a teenager. For some, this is their primary source of income.

Take adult employee Carolynn Lucas. She enjoys working there and is treated well by her co-workers and managers.

“People are great. They make working fun,” she said. Carolynn genuinely enjoys working at McDonald’s, and despite the very rare bad days, she loves that it’s her job.

When asked if she’s ever felt criticized for working at McDonald’s, the answer came quickly.

“No. The job is fun and people don’t judge me.”

I’m not sure if I can say the same. As a teenager working at McDonald’s, I’ve received the occasional comment of, “Really? You work there? Why?” I used to answer apologetically, saying, “Yeah … I don’t know why I work there.” But now, even though it may not be the best job, I can say to my peers who laugh, “At least I have a job.”

LOOKING AHEAD

“Keep busy!”

That’s a common refrain that all managers say at McDonald’s. An employee should never be standing still. There’s an unspoken rule that as soon as an employee has downtime, they grab a rag, wash a dish, wipe down a counter—they do something to occupy their hands.

And yet for all the hard work, the stereotypes remain.

When you think of an employee at McDonald’s, you probably don’t think “successful business person material.” Most people think “lazy,” “teenager,” “slacker” and “unmotivated.”

Sorry, but I’m a hardworking girl who is very motivated. The only reason I got a job so young is because I was motivated to start working. I’m not a slacker and I try my best. I’ve also been working there for more than two years, which when I tell adults that, seems to impress them. Two years to keep any job these days is a long time. I think that’s something to be proud of.

Above all, I’ve learned that I don’t want to work at McDonald’s in the future. I like my co-workers, I like most of the managers, and we like to joke around. But the work isn’t fulfilling.

I’m going off to college soon and I’ll be leaving McDonald’s. I’m lucky to be young with opportunities in front of me. After college, who knows what my options for jobs might be? That’s when I start to think about my fellow employees, the ones who are older.

Carolynn enjoys her job, but there are plenty of adult employees who might not have any other option. McDonald’s might be the only job they can get, and they work hard at it. That makes me appreciate my future opportunities even more. I think most teens take those opportunities for granted.

Will I miss smelling like French fries when I leave River Falls? No. But what I’ve learned at McDonald’s will stick with me. And that’s what important.

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