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Want Fries With That?

It's every student's nightmare: The dream internship falls through, the high-end jobs are gone, and Uncle Dave's connection at Mega-Huge Bank can't get you a gopher gig. What to do?

Well, if you're not too concerned about pride, dignity, or big dollar signs, there's an easy fix for the unemployed summertime blues.

The McJob.

Fear not. The dreaded minimum wage wipeout isn't as bad as it seems, really. The truth is, the minimum wage experience has improved tenfold since we needed working papers and permission slips back in high school. In fact, with a little creative input and a ton of patience, minimum wage warfare has numerous benefits to the student set.

For Betsy DeBoer, working summers during her days at Rowan College in New Jersey provided neither glamour nor grandeur. However, her duties were fairly easy, and the free time she earned was just as valuable to her as her paycheck. "I waited tables and worked at a movie theater, and both jobs gave me tons of free time and a lot of time to work with my friends. And I never once paid to see a movie."

However, waiting tables did have its downside, she says. "Usually, it means your hourly pay is lower than minimum wage, which is supplemented with tips. But the place where I worked wasn't that busy, so I'd often make less than I legally should have."

The flexibility's good. But what about the social implications? For Robyn Dunn, smalltime summer employment helped her pay bills, make car payments and pave the way to what she calls "a better understanding" of people.

"I worked in two small neighborhood shops, selling bagels and cakes," she says. "So I got to meet a lot of the people in the area, which was cool." The soon-to-be-bride sold a lot of wedding cakes, too - a skill she's using now in planning her very own wedding.

"Having that job helped me learn how to deal with people, especially when it came to tiny little details with their wedding cakes. I'm going through that now, so I know how to better handle it."

So basically, there are two minimum wage job categories: cool gigs that pay poorly and poor jobs that pay pennies. An obvious example of the latter is fast food work - but even that's getting better, according to Lisa Howard, spokeswoman for the McDonalds corporation.

"We don't have a national program for students, per se, but our owner-operators have some really great programs to attract people," Howard says. "We offer bonuses, special outings for students, and other incentives to work for us."

Howard also notes that fast food living - a longtime butt of employment jokes - offers students skills they can utilize in any career.

"It's very competitive out there right now," Howard says. "But working for McDonalds gives students a sense of discipline, timeliness, customer satisfaction and teamwork. That's something they can use throughout their work life."

And before you suggestively sell that next apple pie, keep this in mind: Minimum wage varies by region. In fact, if minimum wage is in your future and you happen to be in California, you're in luck. The Santa Cruz city council is considering a $13-an hour minimum wage, while workers in San Jose currently enjoy the nation's highest rate at $9.50 an hour. Los Angeleans make a minimum of $7.39 an hour, while workers six hours north in Oakland make at least $8.39. Sure, the cost of living's higher?but chances are, you're living at home.

Many states also have minimum wage numbers that crush the government's mandatory low-point of $5.15 an hour. The lowest a worker can earn in Massachusetts is $6.00, while Oregon residents enjoy $6.50 an hour for their services. Other states that beat the federal minimum wage rate include Vermont, Alaska, Washington and Connecticut.

On the flip side, several states allow business to pay their employees lower than the federal minimum. In Minnesota, for example, a company that earns more than $500,000 a year must pay its employees the federal minimum of $5.15. However, companies earning below the half-million dollar mark can pay employees as low as $4.90. In some states, the actual size of a company dictates a businesses lawful minimum wage.

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