WHEN Eddie Murphy arrives in New York as a spoiled young African prince in the 1988 hit movie ``Coming to America,'' he is determined to live the life of a typical American. Shunning the vanities of Manhattan, he orders the cab driver to take him to the Queens. After renting a cheap, run-down apartment, Murphy decides to get a typical American job, working - where else? - in a McDonald's look-alike called McDowell's.
Nobody seems to have told the prince - who displays a gleeful enthusiasm for his menial work and soon romances the boss's daughter in true Horatio Alger fashion - that he is supposed to feel alienated, exploited, and doomed to a lifetime of drudgery in a classic dead-end job. If the prince had only read the newspapers a little more often, he would have known that politicians regularly dismiss the idea that working for ``chump change'' could possibly do anybody, especially inner-city youth, any good.
But Eddie Murphy was right. A close look at McDonald's - a frequent target for those expounding the ``dead-end jobs'' thesis - shows that far from sticking its workers in an inescapable rut, the company functions as a de facto job-training program by teaching the basics of how to work.
McDonald's employs a remarkable 1 out of 15 first-time job seekers in its 8,000-plus restaurants across the United States, teaching them such fundamentals as neatness, punctuality, and customer service.
Alan Wurtzel, chairman of the Circuit City chain of electronics stores, says he isn't after specific skills when hiring new cashiers and stock clerks. ``The most important thing we're looking for is attitude and energy. We want people who are reliable, clean shaven, honest, can get along with coworkers, and can follow directions.''
Like his counterparts in stores, banks, and utility companies, Mr. Wurtzel is concerned with finding people with good work habits: people who will show up every day, on time, who are able to serve the public and willing to work. And the government spends millions on job-training programs that try - and often fail - to instill just these basic job skills.
While the typical complaints about McDonald's certainly have some basis in reality - annual turnover often surpasses 100 percent, and it is not difficult to find crew members who complain of high pressure and low wages - the company's meticulous operating procedures are undeniably successful in teaching crucial work behavior.
A 1984 study conducted by the National Institute for Work and Learning surveyed hourly workers at McDonald's and six other major fast-food companies. In addition to learning such directly job-related skills as operating the cash register and food-preparation machines, high percentages of the employees learned what the study's authors call ``general employability skills,'' the qualities needed to be successful in any job: teamwork, customer service, awareness of how a business runs, taking directions, getting along with co-workers, punctuality, finishing an assigned task, taking responsibility for mistakes, coming to work regularly, and being well groomed.
The greatest gains in such skills were reported by blacks and Hispanics, those from low-income backgrounds, and high school dropouts.
``These skills may get picked up as a matter of course by middle-class kids,'' says Bryna Fraser, one of the study's authors, but for many others ``the job site is perhaps the only place to get them.''
Not surprisingly, McDonald's, the largest employer of black youth in the nation, was recently listed in Black Enterprise magazine as one of the 50 best places for blacks to work, along with the US armed forces. Like McDonald's, the services are a place where following strict, measurable, and sometimes onerous procedures can be a recipe for success.
Jobs at McDonald's are undeniably hard work. But lots of jobs aren't fun. Like all jobs that are easily available to many different people, what McDonald's jobs can do and are doing, in small, incremental ways, is give people a chance to work hard and get ahead. Indeed, the high turnover in fast-food jobs is in part a healthy sign that employees are learning basic, transferable skills and taking them on to better jobs.
Herbert Northrop of the Wharton School of Business has written that fast-food jobs are ``one of the most massive, cost-efficient, and racially equitable job-training programs in our nation's history.''
Fast-food jobs are no panacea. They certainly cannot substitute for better schools, intact families, and cohesive communities. But it should be understood that these jobs, particularly in the inner city, are part of the solution, not part of the problem.