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The best first jobs teach workers these skills

August 5, 2021, 3:30 PM UTC
Employees prepare an order at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago. “No matter how deep their technical skills or how bright they are, if people can’t get along with colleagues, make deadlines, or listen to feedback, they’ll find their careers stalled,” writes Tiffanie Boyd.
Joshua Lott—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this year, like many Americans, I started a new job. Stepping into the top human resources role for McDonald’s USA was exciting: I saw it as an opportunity to have a big impact on the business, on people’s lives, and in the communities McDonald’s serves. But some colleagues questioned my decision after seeing some not-so-favorable headlines about McDonald’s as an employer. They challenged me on whether I would be able to fulfill the ambition that had always driven me: to set people up for successful futures.

That sentiment didn’t fit with the McDonald’s I knew growing up, a place where people could learn the skills they needed to advance and grow in their careers, that eventually earned the reputation of “America’s best first job.” What’s more, if jobs under the Golden Arches were so limiting, how were McDonald’s and its franchisees still able to hire hundreds of thousands of restaurant employees in today’s incredibly competitive job market?

I wanted to understand this perception gap. So my team reached out to an organization that has a shared interest in guiding people along successful career pathways: the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). We first worked with the AACC in 2015 when we created Archways to Opportunity, a program that has increased access to education for over 65,000 McDonald’s crew members—helping our people earn high school diplomas and college degrees, learn English as a second language, and pursue their dreams.

Earlier this year, we teamed up again on a Workforce Survey that asked nearly 2,000 Americans about their first job experience—about what’s most important to them in a job, how their careers evolved over time, and the value of continued education. 

What we found is eye-opening. Yes, survey respondents confirmed the importance of competitive pay and benefits at a first job (a key consideration for employees at every stage of their career). But they also said it was important that a first job teach them soft skills that would help set them up for success down the road.

Soft skills are the behaviors, habits, and leadership traits that help people succeed at work. No matter how deep their technical skills or how bright they are, if they can’t get along with colleagues, make deadlines, or listen to feedback, they’ll find their careers stalled.

It’s no accident that LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report found in 2019 that nearly nine in 10 recruiters say a lack of soft skills is what causes a new hire to fall short. The challenge is that while technical skills can be taught in a classroom—think accounting, or engineering, or nursing—soft skills are learned through experience. 

The Workforce Survey identified three categories of soft skills that employees believe a first job must teach. First is responsibility—everything from understanding the importance of being on time, to completing all the duties associated with a job, to being accountable for results. Second is teamwork—including skills like collaboration, problem solving, and effective and clear communication. Third is responsiveness—actively listening to colleagues or customers, staying focused, and acting quickly and thoroughly to deliver meaningful results.  

The survey also found that people who learned at least one skill from each of these three categories at their first job are 19% more likely to have a full-time job currently, 24% more likely to have health insurance, and 50% more likely to report a feeling of life and job satisfaction. When you pair these skills from first jobs with further education, the positive outcomes grow exponentially. People who had a good first job and earned an associate’s degree are twice as likely to be working at a job that creates financial security, and more than twice as likely to report a current feeling of job satisfaction.  

Understanding the long-term value of these soft skills is part of what sets McDonald’s apart as an employer. I was happy to learn that 88% of survey respondents whose first job was at McDonald’s said they learned how to work as part of a team (compared to 74% of Americans overall)—which led to improved financial security and job satisfaction later in life. These results are encouraging, but they’re also a benchmark we hope to grow in the future as we continue to introduce new programs that benefit our crew members.

By offering competitive benefits to support employees in the near term, while also teaching the skills that will prepare them for successful careers over the long term, employers can help their people thrive. That’s what McDonald’s will continue to focus on—and we hope this data inspires other employers to do the same. 
Tiffanie Boyd is chief people officer of McDonald’s USA.

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