On just about every block of my small town there’s a business ­with a “Help Wanted” sign. The business could be a restaurant, a motel, a marina or a landscape company. These are companies (in some cases franchise operations) competing in low-margin industries characterized by high labor costs. For the most part these businesses are seeking to fill entry-level jobs.

That’s not to say that people responding to these pleas for help have to stay in these low-wage jobs. These hires are faced with one of three choices. They can continue to work in the low-wage job. They can become dissatisfied with what they are doing and move on to another job, perhaps another low-wage job. Or, they can work hard and smart, and show their employer that they’re worth more than they’re being paid.

That’s the beauty of our free enterprise system; we all have the freedom of choice when it comes to earning our keep. In almost all cases, we can (and eventually will) rise as high in terms of rewards as our energy and our value to others (and especially employers) allows. These thoughts swirl through my mind as I witness  (and survive) yet another invasion of mayflies in my small lakefront community.

In particular, what caught my attention this particular invasion is how businesses and their employees in my town respond to it. But first, a bit of information about mayflies.

Contrary to what their name implies, mayflies don’t start arriving here until mid-June. You wake up one fine morning and you see a couple of mayflies attached to the side of your house or the windshield of your car. These critters are merely the advance guard. They’re the first indication that armies of their brethren are gathering in the nearby lake awaiting favorable conditions to advance. We brace ourselves, because when the wind shifts and blows in from the lake, they arrive in numbers worthy of mention in Exodus.

Mayfly drive-thruTheir official name is Hexagenia limbata and, apparently, they can be found in regions adjacent to rivers, ponds and lakes in much of the United States and Canada. After progressing from nymph to adult and leaving the muddy bottom of a lake or pond, these diaphanous, fragile insects, being weak fliers, count on providential breezes to waft them to nearby sources of light or to lightly colored cars, houses or T-shirts, which they swarm to and cover in a matter of seconds. They’re harmless, as far as that goes. They don’t bite and they don’t live more than a day or two after leaving the lake. The problem is their incredible numbers. You can hardly avoid them as they crunch when you walk on them. When they die they stink, leaving behind a fishy smell.

Most businesses take a proactive approach to the invasion, and early each morning they use a power washer to blast the thousands of mayflies that have arrived the night before from their storefronts, sidewalks and parking lots. Some businesses use backpack blowers, which aren’t as efficient but gets the job done. And a few businesses (to this writing anyway) have been taking the laissez-faire approach and letting the bugs cover their windows and pile up around their doors. Curious why this is so, I questioned an assistant manager at one of these businesses about the mess at his storefront, he told me his store didn’t have a power washer or backpack blower. He also said he was short-handed and his employees were too busy to deal with the insects. He wasn’t unpleasant or defensive. He spoke freely.

This got me to wondering whether people stay in minimum-wage jobs (the assistant manager makes a small premium above minimum wage, he told me) because they feel that no matter what they do, they will not advance within their companies? Or, whether they remain in minimum-wage jobs because they will only do the absolute Mayfly entranceminimum to keep their jobs? In other words, do they feel they are locked into their low-wage situation regardless of what they do because management has not indicated any other possibility? Or, does their attitude indicate that they’re not likely to ever be more valuable to their employer than what their entry-level wages suggest?

On the surface it might seem to be two sides of the same question, but I think not. I think there is a significant difference between the two questions—at least in the perception of entry-level employees. And I think the heart of the matter is the management of these businesses, referencing what I’m seeing during our most recent mayfly invasion.

When management does not set expectations for its employees (entry-level or otherwise), train them and provide them with the tools and materials they need to function effectively within their respective companies, what kind of message do you think this is sending to its employees? It seems to me that management is indicating to these employees that it doesn’t expect much from them or that they will ever rise to the next level in their careers.

Of course some will, regardless of this, meaning that some employees may come in early to clean the mayflies from the store windows. But most won’t. In the end, it’s every entry-level employee’s to accept or not to accept staying in their dead-in jobs and battling the bugs each June and July.