Living in a College Town, and Not Attending School

Caroline Held, a manager at a McDonald’s in Ames, Iowa, talks about taking a job in food service while many of her peers pursued higher education.

Caroline Held  (Rebecca Clarke)

The decision to go to college is an increasingly popular one, for good reason. People who go to college earn more, live longer, and are more likely to marry. More than half of Americans report having completed some college, and one in three adults reported they had at least a bachelor’s degree. This time last year, nearly 70 percent of high-school students who graduated between January and October 2015 enrolled in colleges or universities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most people who don’t enroll enter the workforce.

Caroline Held, a 21-year-old manager at McDonald’s in Ames, Iowa, decided to work full time when many of her peers went off to college. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Held about her job, why she decided to go to work instead of college after high school, and how her college-aged friends perceive her choice. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you get started working at McDonald's?

Caroline Held: After high school, I didn't have any plans to attend college so I was just looking for a job and McDonald’s was hiring at the time. I had never worked in food service before, but I was hired, and I've been working there for about three years. I’m a full-time shift manager now.

Green: How have your responsibilities changed from when you first started?

Held: When I was first hired, I mostly just worked with the customers. I took orders and got the food ready, but I didn't really work the grills or anything like that. Now as a shift manager, I have to know every position so I can help out. When I first started, I didn't really have a lot of responsibilities, but now I have to make sure that the crewmembers are helping the customers out correctly and everything's going smoothly.

Green: Have you seen what it's like to work at McDonald's change at all over the three years that you've been there?

Held: McDonald's has actually changed a lot. When I first started, we had a different type of meat, and now it's a higher quality. People are always getting more conscious about what they eat because there's so much information out there about what's good for you, what's bad for you, and it's easier to access. For example, we have non-GMO chicken nuggets, fresh eggs for the McMuffin, and we use real butter. I think that's a sign that people caring more about what goes into their food.

Held: There are quite a few challenging things, but a lot of it for me is the personal interaction. As a shift manager, you have to communicate a lot with your crew to make sure that they know everything that they're supposed to do, and then you also have to communicate well with the customers, especially if they're upset. You just have to be really friendly, even if you don't want to be.

Also, just remembering everything that's going on because at McDonald's there are a lot of things going on at one time. Sometimes you'll take an order and people will say, “Oh hey, I ordered that cheeseburger regular. Can I have it no onions?” You're like, “Yes,” and then you have to remember, “Okay. That one's special, even though it's not marked.”

Green: Are you familiar with the Fight for $15 that some McDonald’s employees are engaged in?

Held: I think I’ve heard in the news about McDonald’s employees who want the starting wage to be $15 an hour. In Iowa the minimum wage is $7.25 and where I work the starting wage is $9 an hour, so I feel that for McDonald’s that’s about the highest it will get. It could go higher in the future, but I don’t think it’s a very realistic expectation. In some other places where the standard of living is higher or it’s more expensive to live it could happen, but I don’t think it will be a corporate decision all around. I don’t know of any of my fellow employees being involved with the Fight for $15.

As a manager, I make $10.25 an hour. [My opinions about the Fight for $15] are probably shaped by the fact that I don’t have anyone else to support but me. It would be really hard to support a family on the wages that we make. I wasn’t really expecting much more because these are the general wages of food service, and I get by pretty fine.

Green: You’re from a college town. What are your peers doing for work?

Held: Ames, Iowa, is not a very big town, so working for Iowa State University is the main industry. When the students are here, the population is about 60,000, but then they leave [for the summer] and it cuts in half, so it's actually not a big town. There are quite a few food-service jobs, we have some restaurants, but there's not any other main industry besides the university.

Green: What would you say motivates you as a worker?

Held: I just really like doing a good job at things that I do. I guess pleasing my boss is a big motivation. I just want her to always be happy with what I'm doing and if I'm doing something wrong, I want her to tell me right away so I can correct it.

Held: I come from a college town, and so when everyone graduates high school, a lot of them go to college because their parents are professors or involved with the university. All of my siblings and my parents have attended college, but I just didn't know what I wanted to study and I still don't. I didn't want to spend money on college because it's so expensive, and I just wanted to work and make money and figure out what I like. All of my friends had been thinking about it since they were really young, and went to really good colleges. They do perceive my work differently than their work.

I think working at McDonald's is always viewed as a temporary job that a college kid will work to help them pay for tuition. A lot of people just work at McDonald's for a short time until they can move on to something else. I think that [my friends] were thinking, “Oh this will be a temporary thing, then she'll go into college like us.” They’re not mean to me about it, but sometimes I think that they think they are working for something better while I'm just working and not really improving.

I think sometimes they think my work is a lot easier than what they're doing, but it's just harder in different ways. School is really hard, and I respect people who go to school a lot because school was always really difficult for me. [School is]  just not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I might go back, I might not. Even though I'm not studying all the time or writing a paper, I'm still working a lot. I'm putting in 40 hours a week. Sometimes, I feel like my friends are like, “Oh I'm doing a way harder thing than she is because I'm going to school and it’s really hard.”

Green: Do you plan on sticking with the food-service industry until you decide whether or not you’ll go back to school?

Held: I'm not sure how much longer I'll be in it. Sometimes, I think that I don't want to be working in food service 10 years from now. Sometimes, I think about getting a different job, maybe in retail or something like that. Some of my co-workers have made [working at McDonald’s] a life-long thing, and they've moved really high up. I'm not sure if I want that. It is a temporary thing in my youth to get me by until I figure out what I want to do.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a school lunch server, a bartender, and a pizza-delivery driver.