All Commentary
Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Success Is More About Mindset than Skillset

Minimum wages destroy the entry level jobs that build character

On a busy afternoon at a Market Basket supermarket in New Hampshire, all fourteen checkout aisles are usually open. The checkouts are staffed almost exclusively by teenage cashiers and baggers; on a recent visit, I counted 24 teenagers in the front, and even more stocking the shelves throughout the large store.

At Market Basket, salaries for part-time teenagers are in the $8-$9 an hour range while full-time employees start at $12 an hour. To some, such as New School economics and urban policy professor David Howell, jobs like these are “crappy .” Recently, while commenting about increasing the minimum wage, Howell asked, “Why shouldn’t we in fact accept job loss? What’s so bad about getting rid of crappy jobs, forcing employers to upgrade, and having a serious program to compensate anyone who is in the slightest way harmed by that?”

Elements of our mindset may be invisible to us but still influence everything we do.

Market Basket is a chain of 77 New England supermarkets employing over 25,000 people. To the arrogant, supermarket jobs may seem like menial dead-end jobs. Yet, for many of these teenagers their Market Basket experience is a stepping stone to a meaningful work life. Many are earning income working while in high school and college to pay for their educations. Some may go on to careers at Market Basket.

It is not hard to imagine what would happen to these jobs if a minimum wage of $15 an hour was imposed. Currently, due to a culture of customer service, there are no automated self-checkouts at Market Basket. A dramatic increase in labor costs would almost certainly be accompanied by the introduction of automated checkouts and, in the future, perhaps robotic stockers.

As importantly, the low prices the chain is known for would end too. Low supermarket prices may not be an issue for the elite making pronouncements about what jobs are “crappy,” but for families on a budget shopping at Market Basket low prices increases quality of life.

Jobs Teach Mindset

In his classic essay “Self-Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed how much lies fallow in us: “The power which resides in [every man] is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”

When a teenager or young adult applies at Market Basket, they may not know what they can do until they try. They may not have learned the discipline of showing up on time or of not reacting to perceived slights from peers or adults. They may not have learned how to be resilient in the face of everyday challenges. They may see the world as owing them something instead of looking for ways to create value for others.

Your mindset, explain Paul Stoltz and James Reed in their book, Put Your Mindset to Work is “the internal lens through which you see and navigate life.” Elements of our mindset may be invisible to us but still influence everything we do.

From a survey of thousands of employers, Stoltz and Reed have found that employers value mindset more than skillset:

“Given the choice between someone with the desired mindset who lacks the complete skillset for the job, and someone with the complete skillset who lacks the desired mindset, a total of 96 percent of the employers surveyed picked mindset over skillset as the key element in those they seek and retain. When asked which is more likely, a person with the right skillset developing the desired mindset, or a person with the desired mindset developing the right skillset, 98 percent of employers confirmed the latter.”

At Market Basket, there is a palpable esprit de corps which is part of a learned mindset of collaboration.

Stoltz and Reed observe “If your skillset is about what you can do, then your mindset is about what you see, think and believe.” The top six mindset traits that Stoltz and Reed’s survey reveals are honesty, trustworthiness, commitment, adaptability, accountability and flexibility. Other important mindset traits to employers include determination, purposefulness, drive, and collaborative focus.

Mindset-Centered Training

Founding CEO of Southwest Herb Kelleher put it this way: “If you don’t have a good attitude, we don’t want you, no matter how skilled you are.” Southwest is known for evaluating potential hires for how well they fit into the airline’s culture of collaboration and friendliness.

Market Basket employment practices echo those of Southwest: they look for attitude in a candidate. One Market Basket manager explained that they look for people who are honest, who want to be there and who are “willing to learn.” Then after hiring, “the [Market Basket] system really takes care of the rest.”

What of the teenager or young adult who lacks elements of a winning mindset? If they find themselves with an entry level job at companies like Market Basket, the corporate culture will help them develop one.

At Market Basket, there is a palpable esprit de corps which is part of a learned mindset of collaboration. Male employees, including baggers and stockers, are required to dress in white shirts and ties, which becomes part of their new learned mindset of professionalism. Every employee wears a nametag that also includes how long they have been employed at Market Basket. The labor-intensive Market Basket store culture of engaging customers personally results in taking a customer to an item’s location, rather than telling them the aisle to go to.

How accountable are these helpful employees? Since they were hired, how much has the mindset of accountability grown in them? Did they learn on the job that a “not my job” attitude won’t get them far. For some, “What more can I do?” is learned behavior.

Market Basket is known for promoting entirely from within. MBAs not steeped in Market Basket culture need not apply. Those employees who establish their worth through diligence, hard work, and making suggestions to improve the operations of the store begin to rise up the management chain.

Economics professor Walter Williams has called the minimum wage the “maximum folly.”

Many of Market Basket’s teenage employees learn important lifelong lessons about business. They learn to succeed by creating value for others. They learn that collaboration and communication is highly valued. They learn that in order to succeed and be happy at work, they must put aside the idea that a job is merely a list of responsibilities and orders to carry out. Those who stock the shelves are trained to observe and inform managers about items that are selling fast and need more shelf space. They learn that work can improve the lives of other people. If they don’t serve the customer, someone else will.

In their book We Are Market Basket, marketing professor Daniel Korschun and journalist Grant Welker observe: “At Market Basket, associates are aware that they are not just selling groceries; they are raising consumers’ standards of living through low prices… Executives remind associates frequently and explicitly. Their purpose at work is to make people’s lives better.”

Market Basket’s low prices and generous service generate such consumer loyalty that in 2014 when the family owned business was the subject of an ownership dispute, customers, employees and suppliers all boycotted the store until the original ownership was restored.

Economics professor Walter Williams has called the minimum wage the “maximum folly.” As $15 an hour minimum wages become more common and entry-level jobs are eliminated, we might ask: has folly become cruelty?

To succeed in life, a winning mindset is essential. Our mindset improves through entry-level jobs where we find out that we are not the center of the universe. For those who have not learned the essential elements of how to succeed in the workplace, “crappy” jobs are not only a source of money, they are a source of learning a winning mindset that will improve their income throughout their lifetime. What could be crueler than cutting them off from that opportunity?

  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.