Desperate Job Seekers Turn to McJobs

Yes, McDonald's is hiring, but would you take a low-wage job?

April 7, 2011, 3:02 PM

April 8, 2011 — -- With an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent, many economists believe the "discouraged worker effect" has kicked in: Some of the long-term unemployed have become so beaten down they've stopped looking for work altogether, and no longer are among the counted.

But instead of giving up, other "desperate" job seekers have overcome the stigma that comes with certain low-wage jobs, and some even have turned them into careers.

Here's a list of jobs that some of the desperately unemployed have turned to, and what they've made of them:

1. Food service crew member

The definition of "McJob" in the Merriam Webster dictionary is "a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement." McDonald's is trying to turn that definition on its head with a recruiting campaign to hire 50,000 new workers April 19.

"The beautiful thing is that with McDonald's you can take your career where you want it to go," said Ashlee Yingling, a McDonald's spokeswoman.

The average entry level wage is more than $8, and managers can make $50,000 a year, according to Yingling.

George Dys, a 61-year-old unemployed engineer in Rhode Island, said he may apply to work at McDonald's after hearing about the announcement. Dys has been out of work since 2008 and was featured on the website,

"I never expected that, but if there's an opportunity, then I'm going to check it out," Dys said. "I would love to go back to work. I really would."

In the past, Dys designed products for such companies as Hasbro and Parker Brothers. Supporting his daughter in high school, he recently obtained a real estate license and got a part-time job with a transportation company. His wife works in the local school system.

"My wife doesn't make a whole lot of money," Dys said. "I can't say I'm desperate, but I'm spending my 401(k) right now."

McDonald's argues that working as a crew member in one of its 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. is not a dead-end job. Yingling said half of its 2,600 franchise owners started by working in one of its restaurants.

"From an opportunity standpoint, you start in a restaurant, learn the business and now own a business," Yingling said. "You work your way up. You could become a restaurant manager, work for corporate or be a franchisee."

Keren Rohe, a sophomore at Harvard University, worked at a McDonald's last summer as part of a summer project with the organization Campus Crusade for Christ. Her assignment was to get hired in one day in a town in New Jersey.

"They wanted us to be able to learn about being a Christian in everyday life," Rohe said. "And in real life, you have a job."

Rohe said she enjoyed her time at McDonald's, and she got along well with her co-workers and managers. She said she earned $7.15 an hour, the minimum wage in New Jersey.

"It was interesting to work outside the Harvard bubble, because I don't think a lot of people at Harvard have worked at McDonald's," Rohe said.

The only thing she didn't enjoy about the job was that "customers were often very rude."

"That was the worst part of the job," she said. "They don't hold a lot of respect for people who work at McDonald's so they don't find the need to be polite. It was still very fun. And you can bond with other co-workers over that negative part."

Jerry Newman, a professor at the State University of New York's Buffalo's School of Management, worked undercover for seven fast-food restaurants over 14 months: two McDonald's, two Burger Kings, a Wendy's, Arby's and a Krystal fast-food restaurant.

He described his experience in "My Secret Life on the McJob: Lessons in Leadership Guaranteed to Supersize Any Management Style," one of the Wall Street Journal's "12 Best Books of 2007."

Newman said he was trying to determine how to become a better manager by making a job more satisfying without additional money as an incentive.

Assembling sandwiches, cleaning toilets, washing floors and unloading trucks -- Newman said he did it all.

"It's a much harder job than it looks like," he said.

Newman said he agreed with McDonald's position that you have a number of job opportunities, from crew member to group leader, shift supervisor, assistant manager, manager, district manager and so forth.

He said there are three transferrable skills you learn at a fast-food job: being a team player, being reliable and learning to handle pressure.

"Try going to a McDonald's at Times Square at noon and watch what those people have to do to handle the crowd," Newman said. "I've spoken to a crowd of 5,000 before, and I'll take speaking to 5,000 people over a lunch rush any day."

2. Barista and administrative worker

Vanessa, 30, started working at a Starbucks in Boston in 2009 after she was laid off from a tech startup.

Armed with a college degree but still paying back student loans, she needed money. So she got two part-time jobs -- one as a barista at Starbucks, and one as an administrative assistant at a non-profit organization.

"I need to pay rent," said Vanessa, who asked ABC News only to publish her first name. "I had to get a job that paid the bills or do something else like move in with my parents."

Vanessa hopes to stay in her current work situation, at most, for another year and is starting to look for other jobs.

She had hoped the flexibility of a retail job would allow her to write a book in her spare time, but the unpredictability of work hours can be challenging.

"It's not completely guaranteed money. For a number of reasons, you could get less hours than you need," Vanessa said. "If sales aren't good, then they'll cut hours."

3. House cleaner

About 26 percent of low-wage workers were paid less than the legally required minimum wage in one work week, according to a survey by the National Employment Law Project conducted in 2008. While the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour for non-exempt employees, getting short-changed can be significant for these workers. About 60 percent of workers were underpaid by more than $1 an hour.

Broken down by industry, 41.5 percent of workers in private households experienced minimum wage violations.

4. Writing and coaching

Diane Young, 52, in New Jersey, was laid off from a sales job in March 2009. As she was searching for a job, she started a networking and support group called the Unemployed Optimist. She soon launched a coaching business called the LYF Experience, short for love yourself first, and trains people to use the networking tool LinkedIn.

She also has taken on several part-time jobs, including writing for a local website.

"I think entrepreneurship is the way of the future," Young said. "Start your own business, because corporations are outsourcing and not secure. It may not be exactly what I had in mind, but for people who have been unemployed, it's time to reinvent yourself."

5. Hotel cleaner

Author Barbara Ehrenreich chronicled the challenges of working low-wage jobs in her book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America." She found a job as a hotel maid, among other jobs, and experienced firsthand the stigma that goes with being an anonymous servant.

Ehrenreich also wrote about the challenges of making a living on low-wage jobs, such as paying rent in Key West, Fla.

"I figure that if I can earn $7 an hour -- which, from the want ads, seems doable -- I can afford to spend $500 on rent or maybe, with severe economies, $600 and still have $400 or $500 left over for food and gas. ... The big problem with this place, though, is the rent, which at $675 a month is well beyond my reach," she wrote.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events