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Opportunity and Upward Mobility in the Restaurant Industry | Commentary

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on Congress to increase the minimum wage and pass Sen. Tom Harkin’s and Rep. George Miller’s bill, but he missed an opportunity to move the conversation beyond a narrow debate on wages and into a substantive discussion on meaningful policies that will actually close the income gap and strengthen the middle class.

A poll released earlier this week confirms what most of us already know — that more Americans believe a wage increase is not the most effective way to solve the issue of income inequality in our country. The majority of Americans believe that increased education and training opportunities would have more of a lasting effect in reducing poverty than raising the minimum wage. They are right and study after study proves it.

Providing individuals with a path to upward mobility is a critical national issue with long-term economic implications. Obama continues to treat the Harkin-Miller bill as a silver bullet, even as many economists and scholars argue that a dramatic increase in the minimum wage will have little meaningful impact in reducing poverty and is likely to do more harm than good.

As we have demonstrated in other major policy matters such as immigration and health care reform, the restaurant industry welcomes a discussion on these domestic policy issues, in part, because we provide nearly 10 percent of the nation’s jobs. The livelihood of so many of our employees, managers and business owners will be impacted by the outcome of this debate. The discussion about jobs and employment in this country needs to be a frank and open one — rather than the current, one-sided conversation that is driven by special interest attacks, incorrect assertions and public relations stunts.

We need a national conversation that considers the range of implications of raising the minimum wage and how that would affect new entrants into the workforce, business owners small and large, local economies and the ability to create jobs and provide opportunities for advancement.

The restaurant industry, for example, employs more than 13 million workers. Restaurants are critical employers and have outpaced the overall economy in each of the last 14 years. The restaurant industry added more than 1.1 million jobs since the end of the recession.

The proposals being floated recently, with suggestions of a $15 an hour minimum wage, would not only limit employment opportunities, disproportionately affecting teens, the low-skilled and entry-level position workers the administration most wants to help and where unemployment rates are the highest. While many of these workers begin with little or no skills, they are able to get a job working in restaurants and gain that critical experience.

The restaurant industry trains America’s workforce. One in 3 Americans today started their career in the restaurant industry, the training ground for millions of entry-level workers who have built critical competencies of personal responsibility, teamwork, conflict resolution, discipline and accountability.

The industry is not just a pathway to other careers. Many of our jobs are managers, crew supervisors and chefs in restaurants — salaried positions that offer competitive pay and benefits and are firmly middle-class jobs that do, in fact, support families. What you don’t hear from the unions is that the majority of restaurant workers who start at entry-level wages receive a raise within the first 12 months on the job.

I am proud to work in the industry and to represent people — entrepreneurs of every ethnicity and nationality — who care about their employees and their communities. The economic value of the restaurant industry improves the lives of millions of individuals, nearly every American community and our nation’s overall economic health.

Instead of focusing on a shortsighted and ineffective approach in an election year, let’s spend our time and energy finding a solution that involves pro-growth proposals that will help create jobs, strengthen the middle class, increase opportunities for families and put more money back into the economy.

Dawn Sweeney is president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.

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