Our Opinion: $15 minimum wage won’t help workers overcome skills gap

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Low-skilled workers aren’t earning enough to provide for themselves and their families. The way we see it, there are two ways to remedy this.

First, you can increase the minimum wage, requiring higher compensation for tasks that may not produce a lot of profit for employers. Alternatively, you can equip workers with the education and skills they need to find higher-paying jobs.

Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat who represents the city of Wilson and a swath of north-central Wilson County, introduced a bill that favors the former approach. We prefer the latter as a lasting antidote to the working-class poverty that plagues eastern North Carolina.

Bryant introduced Senate Bill 210, an act to require a “living wage” by 2022, on March 7. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, is a primary sponsor of the House version of this legislation, HB 289.

The bills would bring staggered raises to North Carolina’s $7.25 pay floor, lifting the minimum wage to $8.80 by 2018, $10.35 in 2019, $12 in 2020, $13.50 in 2021 and $15 in 2022.

While phasing in the wage hike over a four-year period would be less disruptive than a bill Bryant introduced last May to trigger an immediate $12-an-hour limit, this year’s legislation still fails to address the root causes of poverty — a lack of education and marketable skills.

Front-line customer service jobs most likely to pay minimum wage or close to it can be demanding, and the workers who fill these important positions deserve respect and fair treatment. But they’re called entry-level jobs for a reason; that is, anyone can do them satisfactorily with on-the-job training.

There’s a long, proud tradition of teenagers getting their first jobs as restaurant and retail cashiers. Since at least the Great Recession, more of these positions are going to adults, some of whom have children of their own to support. By investing in worker training programs, the state can help these grownups earn a promotion and free up some of those cash registers for teens saving for cars, cellphone bills and college.

Those who wish to raise the minimum wage say no one who works 40 hours per week deserves to live in poverty. But the jobs that pay $7.25 have long been intended as the first rung on the occupational ladder, not a plateau where workers should stagnate.

As we wrote in an editorial last May, raising that first rung higher won’t help anyone climb the ladder.

Advocates for higher wages are trying to solve an important social problem, but they’re going about it the wrong way. We’d rather see state lawmakers offer subsidized training programs and community college for low-wage workers so they can increase their skills and find better-paying jobs.

Artificially boosting pay beyond what the market will support leads to reductions in the labor force. Supermarkets are adding more self-service checkout lines, and fast-food restaurants are supplementing their workforce with touch-screen ordering kiosks.

In the age of automation, minimum-wage hikes give companies an incentive to invest in technology that will put the lowest-skilled and most vulnerable people out of work. That doesn’t sound like compassion to us.