Earlier today I provided a statistical snapshot of minimum wage earners. The numbers indicate that in the United States:

  • Most minimum wage earners are young.
  • Most minimum wage earners work in food service.
  • Most minimum wage earners have never attended college.

Statistics are one thing, but real-life is another. There are still millions of older college-educated Americans who earn minimum wage in jobs outside the food service industry. Many of these people want to escape their situation, but don’t know how.

More than pinching pennies
Over the weekend, Trent at The Simple Dollar shared ten steps to financial success for a minimum wage earner. His advice is excellent, but emphasizes frugality and cutting costs. I want to look at another approach to escaping minimum wage — earning more money.

Here’s what one minimum wage earner once wrote at Get Rich Slowly:

There are definitely [minimum wage earners] who casually spend beyond their means without regard to or serious consideration of consequences. There are also those who are living frugally yet are squeezed financially, perhaps by high rents and utilities (the homeownership rate of the working poor is close to zero), falling real wages, or health and medical expenses…I make minimum wage and have student loan debt. I can’t think of any spending I can cut out without feeling deprived.

The fundamental law of money still applies to those who make minimum wage: to gain wealth, you must spend less than you earn. But it’s more difficult for a person making minimum wage to spend less than she earns. Even after cutting luxuries — cable television, eating out, etc. — there are certain minimum costs associated with living in our culture. If you’re in a situation where you’ve reduced expenses as far as they will go, it’s time to focus on the other component of the wealth equation: increasing your income.

Breaking free from minimum wage
A minimum wage job can seem like a prison — you can’t imagine you’ll ever break free. You can’t imagine you’ll ever earn more money. However, opportunities do exist. Here are several approaches to escaping the shackles of a low-wage job:

  • Work two jobs. If debt or living expenses are keeping you down, take a second job. This may not help you escape from minimum wage in the short-term, but it will alleviate some of the financial pressure you’re facing, which will eventually allow you to focus on long-terms solutions.
  • Seek a promotion. Find a way to advance in your current job. What would it take for you to move into some sort of management position? What about moving to another department where the pay is better? Be the sort of employee that managers can’t live without: show up on time, be efficient, do quality work. Watch for advancement opportunities with your current employer.
  • Change companies. If there’s no path to higher income at your current job, what about a similar job with another company? Not all employers have the same pay structure. Scout the competition, and see if they can offer a better opportunity.
  • Change professions. You may need to leave your current field altogether. If you’re working at the counter in a convenience store, you’re better off taking another line of work. What sorts of jobs are you qualified for? “None,” you might say, but many employers need unskilled laborers. An unskilled laborer who shows up for work on time, is agreeable, and makes an effort will usually be earning more than minimum wage in just a few months.
  • Steer clear of corporate giants. As a small business owner, I’m biased against big corporations. Publicly held companies have huge motivations to keep worker wages and benefits low. It’s true that your top-end advancement may be limited with a small business, but they’re generally more flexible than corporate giants. Many small business owners go out of their way to look out for their best employees.
  • Educate yourself. Finally — and most importantly — do what you can to increase your education and marketability. Make yourself appealing to employers. Develop skills that they can use.

In fact, education is so vital to escaping minimum wage that it deserves a closer look.

The importance of education
Education makes a huge difference in your earning potential. The median income for a U.S. male who dropped out of high school is $18,990. The median income for a high school graduate is $28,763. The median income for a man with even some college is $35,073. Education opens doors. And it’s not just about the piece of paper — if you take practical classes, you can learn skills that will have a direct effect on how much you can earn.

I am a huge fan of community colleges. They’re an excellent place to pick up additional training. What can you learn at a community college? Here are a handful of the programs that my local community college offers:

  • Alcohol and drug counseling
  • Automotive service and repair
  • Business administration
  • Computer programming
  • Construction
  • Dental hygiene
  • Electrical trades
  • Graphic design
  • Landscaping
  • Real estate
  • And much, much more

Make no mistake: these classes will not get you a top-paying job in the field. They will, however, help you land entry-level positions, positions that will pay more than the minimum wage, positions that will help you find a career path with advancement opportunities. It might take you a couple years to reach this point, but you can reach it. How do I know? Because I did it myself.

In 1998, I was fed up with working for the box factory. I decided to become a computer programmer. While still working full-time, I began to take classes at the local community college. Most of the time I could only afford one class per term, but sometimes I squeezed in two. Within eighteen months I had developed the skills to be hired as an entry-level computer programmer. My pay was $25 an hour, which was at the low end of the spectrum for that kind of job (but appropriate for the skill-set I had acquired).

If you decide to use education to break free from minimum wage, be sure to choose practical classes in order to increase your earning potential. A philosophy class might sound cool, but it’s not going to get you a job. Nor will creative writing.

Don’t forget that school is an excellent place to make contacts with people who might serve as references for future job applications. Most community college instructors have connections in their fields. Make a good impression, and follow through with class requirements. Meet deadlines. Take pride in your work. People will notice.

Ask yourself the hard questions
If you’re in a minimum wage job and would like to escape, it’s important to ask yourself why you’re in a minimum wage job. Are the reasons obvious? Is it because you’re young? If you’re just out of school, minimum wage is a rite of passage. It’s something most people experience. Keep moving in the right direction and you will leave it behind.

Are you in a minimum wage job because you lack education? Make education a priority. Pick a career that interests you and is in demand. Obtain the skills necessary to enter the field.

But if you don’t know why you’re in a minimum wage job, or if your answer is that your boss, co-workers, or life won’t give you a break, then you may need to look inward. I had a friend who was trapped in a low-paying job that he hated. He had a long list of external forces that kept him stuck there (and in the crummy jobs he’d had before). He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t able to break free. To everyone around him, the reasons were obvious, but he didn’t want to hear them. He’s still trapped in a low-paying job.

Final thoughts
Perhaps I’m naive, but I believe most minimum wage earners can find a path out of their plight. In most instances, hard work, patience, and education can counter the forces of history and bad luck.

I’d love to hear how former minimum wage earners managed to graduate to higher incomes. (Or how they didn’t, if that’s the case.) If I collect enough stories, I’ll post them in a separate entry. If you’d like to share your story, please drop me a line, or post it in this forum thread.