Can a highly educated person do exceptionally well and advance in a low education, low training job?

I know someone who, while in college, managed to make Shift Manager at a fast food restaurant.

In my job as a software developer, I’ve seen that it’s a LONG way to the top of the career, and I am competing against the best and brightest. I’ve had a fantasy of giving up my “Dilbert” life and taking a low-stress job as a janitor at the local school system and working alongside high school dropouts and people who barely speak English, and then using my motivation and education to advance rapidly in the career until I am Head Janitor of the County Schools and making a decent salary. E.g. “Hey, robert_columbia is the only janitor at East Lake High that has a decent understanding of managerial practices and realities and he never has to be reminded to clean a plunger after using it, let’s make him Foreman!” Basically, I’m talking about careers that one can get in the door of either with no training, or with, say, a semester course, and then rise in the ranks.

Is anything like that remotely possible in a practical sense? Has anyone done it? Perhaps I’m biased in terms of some of the low skill employees that I see on a daily basis. I think to myself, ‘If only I had that job, I’d blow the expectations out of the water!’.

Or, are all the jobs of the type that I’m thinking about really dead-ends?

I worked for a software company whose president started out working in the mailroom.

It depends on the job and the employer. Of course it’s possible, it happens. But will it happen for you? I think intelligent people who don’t have menial jobs really underestimate how hard the repetition is for an intelligent person. And while lots of companies promote from within, not all of them do. It depends.

Sometimes these jobs are dead ends. I know there are companies that prefer to hire their managers from the outside rather than promoting their smartest worker bees. But yes there are companies out there that will reward someone who starts off in a low level job but shows some common sense and ambition. I know some intelligent people who, for various reasons, work in fast food. They have a lot of stories about how a lot of their coworkers truly are quite incompetent and unprofessional, which makes it pretty easy to shine if the management appreciates someone who is trying to do a good job (not always guaranteed though - sometimes the managers at these places are idiots too and their favorite workers are the ones who will drink or smoke dope with them, not the ones who are working the best).

However, one problem that a smart person faces in jobs like fast food or janitorial work is that if you interact with the public in those kinds of jobs you’ll see that there are a lot of assholes out there who are very condescending and rude to people who work those jobs. That could make the job very demoralizing even if there is nothing objectively all that bad about making burgers or mopping the floor.
An idiot might not notice or be able to reflect on it when some customer is a jerk to them for being a fry cook, but I know it bothers one intelligent person I know who works fast food when people who go to his restaurant act like they’re better than him. They don’t know that he’s just working his way through school and he’s the top of his class in a demanding college curriculum.

You can certainly do an excellent job in a low level position, but as soon as you advance, your job is no longer low level, and you end up with all the stress and hassles. Being a janitor might look like a low-stress job, but the Head Janitor of the County Schools is going to have to deal with personnel problems, and budgeting, and a whole lot of other unpleasant high-stress duties.

SpoilerVirgin, former secretary, now a Vice President at the same company.

I have heard from someone I trust that some employers for repetitive or low skill jobs will, in some cases, actually use basic intelligence tests to screen out people who test too high as they are not likely to last in the job, and training them is a more risky proposition than hiring lower on the bell curve. The assumption is that while they may need the job monetarily they will quickly become bored or dissatisfied, and soon leave or be disruptive.

Beyond this I have to question the assumption that being highly intelligent or well educated is really going be the leg up you think it is in jobs that rely on managing relatively low skill employees where there is a lot stress and hard physical labor.

I have worked my fair share of menial jobs in my time, and in these sorts of jobs from what I have seen, the main elements of managerial success are being organized, tireless, focused, being physically brave and willing to get in peoples faces if the situation requires it to solve a problem, and having the ability to “read” people emotionally. None of these attributes are inherently linked to unusually high intelligence or advanced education.

Have you read Nickel and Dimed?
iirc one of Ms. Ehrenreich’s findings was : she didn’t blow away the competition.
In places like Walmart, doing repetitive boring work she did ok. Cleaning houses as part of a crew she was not at the top of the game. Her co-workers often could not afford to eat lunch and slept in vehicles, in that respect she was more adequately prepared to work. But the motivated low-level workers did as well as she.
Ms. Ehrenreich holds multiple degrees in science iirc, but is best known as a writer.

In this economy I’m sure millions of highly educated people are toiling at jobs below their talent.

There was an article in the NYT about this, people with graduate degrees working jobs that only require AA degrees, etc and how they brought certain skills and talents to those jobs that the employers normally would not get for the wages they are offering. However even those weren’t truly ‘menial’ jobs. To me a menial job is minimum wage and all physical labor (with no cognitive input).

Besides, even if you work in something like fast food a lot of people seem to top out at manager and assistant manager, which is about $10-11/hr from what I know.

I know of a ton of law school graduates who are waiting tables right now. I don’t think many of them would advance far in the profession even if there was room to do so.

As others mentioned, you’d have to watch out for the dead-end jobs. Some jobs are based on seniority, not experience or motivation. At my last job I’ve seen some people go from bagger -> cashier -> assistant customer service manager, but that took them a good seven years. I’m sure they had the capabilities to learn the acsm skills from the get go, but seniority prevented them from advancing any further until there was a spot open.

I was a cashier and always polite and hardworking, but my motivation died off pretty quick once I realized that I’d always be working under (advancement-wise) the rude, lazy slackers, even if they were hired just a minute before me.

Some supervisors have trouble managing people smarter than them.

Keep in mind that in the low level job, you are now performing a task that nearly anyone can do. IOW, there is nothing special about your background or education that would enable you to do it better.
Also, many companies are organized along a class structure. When I worked in a Big-4 consulting firm, admins, IT support and people from the mail room never get promoted into the analyst->associate->manager->partner track. Those jobs are reserved for MBAs and CPAs and whatnot. In a lot of Fortune 500 companies, you don’t have much chance to enter senior management of the major business units unless you start in one of their management training programs.


And how do you motivate people when you have very little in common with them? How do you know when they’re bullshitting you versus those times when you really should cut them some slack?

Assign someone a task, which seems perfectly simple to you, but even with the best intentions, they don’t get it, don’t know where to start or finish, or why it’s necessary.

Part of my job involves writing instructions for blue collar, line employees. Not dumb, but not much on book learnin’ either. The managers who are my immediate clients always tell me, “No, you have to keep it clear and simple. You have to spell it out. Don’t think that they can figure this part out for themselves, because they are either unable or unwilling to do so.”

It’s not limited to blue collar workers either. I’ve worked with plenty of highly educated workers who will perfectly execute anything they are asked to do. And they will do exactly that. No more, no less. Which is a huge problem because I am asking them to figure out solutions to complex and often vague problems, not do basic data entry.

People always like to complain about being micromanaged and not given enough responsibility. But then they don’t do anything that demonstrates they don’t need to be hand-held like a retarded child.