Skills and Bills

Dear Dr. Per Cap:

I just got my first job as a dishwasher in a diner. It’s OK, but I don’t think it’s fair that I earn less than the cooks. I work just as hard, and all that food isn’t worth a dime without a clean plate to serve it on. Should I ask for a raise?

Dishwashing Phenom

Dear Phenom,

Congratulations on your first job! I admire your enthusiasm, too. But no, you shouldn’t ask for a raise so soon. I say that because of a tough lesson I learned one summer working as a hod carrier. A person can work hard, or a person can work smart.

Within the masonry trades, a hod carrier is a laborer who assists a bricklayer with mixing cement and making sure he has the bricks, supplies, and tools to do his job.

It was one of the hardest and dirtiest jobs I’ve ever had. I spent a day hauling a wheelbarrow around a jobsite loaded with heavy bricks and thick, slushy mortar. Some days, I had to carry buckets of mortar up a tall ladder; or stacked huge piles of bricks so the bricklayer could focus his effort on the foundations, walls, and facings of the structures we worked on.

At the end of each day, I was completely wiped out while earning less than half of what the bricklayer made.

But that didn’t matter when it came to who earned a bigger paycheck. Because while breaking my back was indeed tough, I didn’t have the specialized skills the bricklayer had – the ability to quickly and efficiently lay bricks. The experience to gauge the perfect amount of mortar needed to cement each brick in place, the finesse to trowel that mortar evenly and cleanly, and the precision to level and plumb each brick row after row.

Bricklaying is a very specialized skill that takes time and effort to acquire, a skill most people don’t have. The same reality exists in restaurants and other trades ― more skill equals more pay. Washing dishes is certainly hard work, but it doesn’t require the same expertise as measuring ingredients, managing cooking temperatures, chopping and dicing, and a host of other hard-earned skills.

Your best option, if you plan on staying in the kitchen, is to become that skilled person who commands the premium wage. Work your way up the proverbial food chain to be a cook or maybe a chef. Another angle is to focus on the customer service side of the business as a server. Granted, waiting tables might not be as technical as preparing meals, but it’s a skill that takes experience and dedication to do well and you will earn good tips.

Bon appétit!


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