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What's it really like to work at McDonald's?

A man working at McDonald's Image copyright ALAMY

In 1955 the first McDonald's franchise restaurant opened in the US. Now it is the world's biggest fast food chain, employing 1.9 million people. The word "McJob" has become a term of derision, but what's it like to actually work there?

"Hello, can I help you?" asks the smiling young woman behind the counter. Within about 20 seconds of receiving the order, an Egg and Sausage McMuffin is on the counter. The woman smiles again and moves on to the next customer.

The restaurant's only part-full but the serving area is still busy. That's the way McDonald's likes it. Staff are set time targets for service. Efficiency and profit margins are key.

It's fair to say that, in the 60 years since the first franchised McDonald's restaurant opened, portrayals of its workplaces have not been universally positive.

Staff are often said to have a "McJob". The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term, first used by the sociologist Amitai Etzioni in the Washington Post in 1986, as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, especially one created by the expansion of the service sector".

Further popularised in the 1991 Douglas Coupland novel Generation X, it has become synonymous with low-grade work, particularly for young people.

But McDonald's insists it offers more. Supported by some MPs and business leaders, it has urged the OED to change its definition, somehow incorporating the information that a McJob "teaches responsibility". It has instead extolled the "McProspects" it offers - an expression yet to infiltrate the popular lexicon.

Douglas Coupland's McJob

In Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland defines a number of cultural phenomena in footnotes, including the phrase "McJob"

  • McJob: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one
  • He writes: "Dag got off his shift at Larry's Bar where, along with me, he is a bartender... (He) was bored and cranky after eight hours of working his McJob"

Staff working on McDonald's counters and in kitchens are called "crews" - a military-sounding word designed to emphasise the need for teamwork in a high-pressure environment. Like United States generals they are awarded up to four stars, in their case for skills acquired, such as hygiene awareness, till operation and food preparation.

"I always thought of the whole 'crew' thing as a bit of a lame Americanism," says Sarah (not her real name), who worked in a McDonald's in East Anglia from 2007 to 2009, serving customers in-store and at the drive-through hatch. "We never really used it. It was more of a management thing.

"But being at McDonald's was probably one of the most fun jobs that I've done, in a funny way. A lot of people, I'd say about 50%, were in the same position as me, at university or college. Nobody took it too seriously."

Image copyright Getty Images

Staff at McDonald's work between four and 45 hours a week, those in the UK getting above the minimum wage, according to the company.

"There wasn't much variation," says Sarah. "It could get a bit tetchy. You didn't get anyone shouting, but there was pressure on the kitchen to ensure as little wastage happened as possible.

"The business manager in charge of the restaurant seemed to have a very stressful job, with the store constantly being measured against others. The shift managers were more like us."

The crew-based operation dates back to 1940 when brothers Dick and Maurice McDonald opened McDonald's Bar-B-Q in San Bernardino, California, in 1940, restarting it as a drive-in burger restaurant in 1948. They are credited with pioneering a fast-service, limited-menu service, with a focus on cheapness and disposable packaging.

In 1954, paper cup and milkshake-mixer salesman Ray Kroc, intrigued by the large number of orders coming from the brothers, visited them. He found they were looking for a nationwide franchising agent. Kroc got the role and the first restaurant under the scheme - regarded as the first proper McDonald's - opened in Des Plaines, Illinois, on 15 April 1955.

Image copyright McDonald's
Image caption Ray Kroc's first restaurant

The operation expanded rapidly, opening its first UK outlet in 1974. McDonald's now has more than 36,000 outlets worldwide, some owned and run by the firm, but most by franchisees. Those approved for the role have to undergo nine months of training. In the UK, they have to leave a £5,000 deposit, refunded on completion of the course, and put down a one-off £30,000 franchise fee.

The franchisees are under pressure to keep profit margins high, as their living depends on it. A recent row over pay in the US focused on the question of who really is in charge of employment policy. The complainants argued that McDonald's was forcing franchisees to reduce cost and keep wages low, and that they should be regarded as "joint employers". The National Labor Relations Board ruled in favour of this.

All this was further ammunition to critics of the company who say it provides low-paid, dead-end work rather than a meaningful career.

Protests took place in South Korea in February against a "culture of exploitation" of part-time staff, which involved the storming of branches in Seoul. Several US workers have filed complaints over kitchen safety.

A day of protest is being planned at franchise restaurants to coincide with McDonald's 60th anniversary celebrations. This follows a dollar-an-hour rise at company-owned branches not being followed through by franchisees.

The McDonald's Workers' Resistance group describes working for the company as "degrading and dehumanising", accusing it of having a procedure in place for "every tiny action to make our role almost completely robotic".

Image copyright Getty Images

Sarah didn't see anyone being mistreated during her time at McDonald's. "We never had any problems with health and safety," she says. "There were a few burns in the kitchen, but that's to be expected now and again in that job."

McDonald's employment practices have always been, in a physical sense, more open than most. The kitchens are visible to customers, albeit with staff working behind machines. The company even operates tours.

For those wanting a career, rather than a short-term job, McDonald's has run the Hamburger University in Illinois since 1961, offering courses in "hamburgerology" - preparing staff for restaurant management and executive roles. Those who pass receive a "degree".

McDonald's has established eight training centres around the world, one of them in north London.

Since 2009 the company has given teenage employees in England and Wales the chance to study for an apprenticeship in hospitality and catering, equivalent to five GCSEs at A* to C grades. This includes help with maths or English where this standard has not already been achieved.

"They're really quite well up in terms of educating their workforce," says Richard Cope, senior trend consultant at the market research group Mintel. "You struggle to see many other brands taking it on to that degree. It's very, very progressive. It's something we are predicting companies will do more and more."

Image copyright Thinkstock

This could be good for PR, as well as internal morale. Cope points to Mintel's research on the UK clothing sector, suggesting that 44% of consumers take into account manufacturers' treatment of staff before making purchases. Fast-food companies are also keen to project an ethical image, he says. "It's something people are more concerned about because they've got more information about it," he adds. "They have more access to details about corporate behaviour."

In January, McDonald's reported an annual global fall in sales of 15%, describing the climate as "challenging".

"As a food service business, we know that our employees and their skills are vitally important - to our commercial success, to the individual success of our people, and to making sure our customers have a great experience with us," says a McDonald's spokeswoman. "This is why we are committed to the continued training and development of our staff, at all levels. We want to equip our employees with the skills they need to progress in their career, whether it is with McDonald's or elsewhere."

It has started offering table service in some countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Germany. This is seen as a reaction to the growth in more upmarket burger restaurants such as Byron, Shake Shack, Five Guys and Fine Burger Company.

As some counter workers become waiters, this means a direct reversal of the McDonald brothers' experiments in the 1940s.

"If we're going to go anywhere," Ray Kroc once said, "we've got to have some talent and I'm going to put my money into talent." It will be some time, however, before everyone agrees that the McJob has been replaced by the McCareer.

More from the Magazine

Image copyright Thinkstock

It's easy to be flippant about flipping burgers at the world's biggest fast food chain, but as a teenager trying to scrape my way through sixth-form and then journalism college, my three years as a part-timer at McDonald's in Luton taught me many valuable lessons about life, writes the BBC's John Hand.

'Everything I needed to know I learned in McDonald's'

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