Is it possible to make a career out of folding burritos? Chipotle thinks you can

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Many people think of fast-food employment as a bridge to wherever they're going in life: something students do to earn pocket money, or unemployed adults do between more meaningful jobs.

But Chipotle wants to avoid having workers think of their jobs as mere "jobs." Instead, the company wants Chipotleans to have careers.

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The Denver-based Mexican-food chain recently set up a website, NationalCareerDay.com, for an initiative on Sept. 9 where they intend to "draft the next wave of our future leaders on a truly unique career path." We spotted this on several Patch.com sites.

Chipotle has about 53,000 employees, and says it has promoted more than 10,000 of them into management roles over the past year. Those would include roles like kitchen manager, general manager or district manager – a "restaurateur" in Chipotle parlance. More than 95% of those managers are promoted from lower positions, according to Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold.

"I think we are minting the American Dream in a way that few other companies are," Arnold told me.

Having seen materials from the "career" push, I began to ask myself: is this just marketing fluff pegged to Labor Day weekend, or are the company's intentions earnest? Can a Chipotle worker really go from dolloping sour cream to running a corporate silo?

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And, either way, how often does that end up happening? How many fast-food workers build something truly resembling a "career" in the industry, with decent wages, benefits, advancement opportunities and professional growth?

Of course, there's no shame in being a fast-food employee, whatever one's career goals are. But it's an important question given that a greater share of Americans are working in food-service jobs, including fast-food restaurants, since the Great Recession.

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Fusion, data via St. Louis Federal Reserve

Organizers of the Fight for $15 movement, which is advocating for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour and for increased unionization, say they are skeptical of fast-food companies who say long-term careers in the industry are possible.

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Jack Temple, a spokesman for the group, points to a 2013 study from the National Employment Law Project showing that the vast majority of fast-food jobs are bottom-rung, low-wage positions. (Only 2.2% are managerial, professional, or technical, compared with 31% in the overall U.S. economy.)

Fusion, data via NELP
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The NELP study concludes that "significant reforms" to pay and organizational structure would be necessary to give fast-food workers a real chance at building a career.

Temple was less sanguine: "Opportunities for advancement in the fast-food industry are nonexistent," he said.

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For further perspective, there's the gulf between earnings in a fast food company's C-suite and its front-line burrito artists. Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ellis earns an estimated 1,522-times what his average worker makes, giving the company the second-highest CEO-to-employee pay gap in America, according to a Glassdoor.com survey. The median annual Chiptole worker salary is $19,000, the site says.

But there are many signs that many workers are now willing to take lower wages up front for the chance at moving up — in other words, to set off on a true career.

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While a minimum-wage worker was once stereotyped as a pimple-faced teen flipping burgers – or stuffing burritos, today, the median age for workers who prepare and serve food (including fast food) is 27.6, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median age of someone who supervises those workers is 33.8, and there are zero occupations with a median age under 21, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Furthermore, the majority of American workers earning minimum wage or less are now 25 or older.

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Fusion, data via BLS

On its career path page, Chipotle lists seven different occupations an employee can move up through, topping out at a restaurateur, who leads several restaurant teams. Staffing ladder, crew, kitchen manager and service manager positions have hourly wages, while apprentice, general manager, and restaurateur are salaried. The company uses $133,000 as an "illustrative company-wide average" of what a restaurateur can earn.

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Chipotle also points out that hourly-wage employees are now offered "medical plans that cover preventive care, office visits, hospitalization, and surgery." Arnold says new hires are offered medical, dental and vision coverage starting the first of the month following 30 days of employment.

There are two ways to look at what the company is doing with its career day. Either it's glomming onto a national holiday that celebrates the labor movement to sidestep negative perceptions of the fast food industry. Or Chipotle genuinely wants its employees to move up the ladder.

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In truth, it's probably a combination of both. And even if it's the former, one way to get entry-level employees to advance and prosper could be simply letting them know them that there are opportunities to do so.

"When we hire people into entry level crew positions, we are looking for people who we think have the ability to move up into management and leadership positions," Arnold, Chipotle's spokesman, says. "Once people are hired, we look to develop our people and promote them from within."

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Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.

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