Consider the following word problem that might appear on the fourth grade MCAS Test. Paul orders a cupcake at a service center restaurant along the Mass Turnpike. The total, including tax, is $2.77. Paul hands the person at the cash register $5.77. How much change should Paul receive?
I ran into that problem last week when I stopped for dinner on my way home from a business trip. The correct answer is $3.00, but in real life the answer was E – None of the Above – because the girl behind the counter did not have a clue how to make that change for me.
She was a sweet looking person, somewhere in her twenties. She rang up my order; she announced $2.77 in passable English with a faintly Eastern European accent. I handed her a five dollar bill three quarters and two pennies. She took them in her hand, gave me a helpless shrug wordlessly turned to the manager, who conveniently stood nearby. He nudged her aside, pushed several buttons on the machine, gave me three dollars, and closed the cash draw. He stood back while she gave me my cupcake, with no more idea how much change I received or why than before the manager intervened.
Eating my cupcake, which was mighty tasty, I considered how that small interaction represented so well the erosive decline of the United States. The cashier was incompetent. The technology, a cash register supposedly sophisticated enough to compensate for incompetent cashiers, fell short. The manager intervened, as he must do many times a day, yet he did nothing to teach the cashier how to make correct change in this particular situation. No one communicated, no one learned, everyone was annoyed.
We have become a bifurcated nation. The hyper educated make sophisticated systems and machines, like cash registers that take all the thinking out of being counter help, while the rank and file who staff those counters have no idea how their machines work and are helpless at the smallest glitch.
If a young adult cannot make change, our schools have failed. If a worker at a national chain restaurant cannot make change, their training program has failed. If the manager does not teach his worker the rudiments of her job, he has failed. And the cashier, who did not seem the least bit upset about not knowing how to do her job, is both the object and a casual participant in her failure.
The USA a great country or at least it was. If we keep going like this some other nation will surely snatch the baton of greatness from our grasp, we are so nonchalant in how we carry it. There are plenty of hungry and eager countries willing to step up to the big challenges, like how to make change.