Check Out How Apple Brainwashes Its Store Employees--Turning Them Into Clapping, Smiling Zealots

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David Segal of the New York Times takes an excellent look at what it’s like to work in an Apple Store–an occupation that has become one of the favourite “McJobs” in our economy for hip college graduates.

The pay sucks (relatively), the stores are busy and crowded, and there’s little upward mobility, so it’s pretty much a dead-end job.

But 30,000 of the 40,000 Apple employees in the United States work in the stores, so this has now become the defining experience of working at the company.

And Apple is perceived as cool–much cooler than, say, McDonald’s or Walmart or Starbucks–so the company is continually deluged with resumes. For every Apple Store employee who quits, disillusioned, after a couple of years, there are many more eager to take his or her place.

Apple picks a small percentage of lucky candidates from the stack, which are submitted online, of course, through Apple’s web site. The company screens for “affability” and “self-directedness,” not tech savvy: The latter can be learned; the former is innate. Then Apple invites everyone to a “seminar” in a conference room at a hotel.  If you’re a few minutes late, you’re eliminated.

The people who are offered jobs are often so happy that they burst into tears.

And then the real indoctrination starts.

Training lasts for a few days to a few weeks.

Check out David Segal’s description of what happens when you arrive:

Training commences with what is known as a “warm welcome.” As new employees enter the room, Apple managers and trainers give them a standing ovation. The clapping often bewilders the trainees, at least at first, but when the applause goes on for several lengthy minutes they eventually join in.

“My hands would sting from all the clapping,” says Michael Dow, who trained Apple employees for years in Providence, R.I.

There is more role-playing at Core training, as it’s known, this time with pointers on the elaborate etiquette of interacting with customers. One rule: ask for permission before touching anyone’s iPhone.

“And we told trainees that the first thing they needed to do was acknowledge the problem, though don’t promise you can fix the problem,” said Shane Garcia, the one-time Chicago manager. “If you can, let them know that you have felt some of the emotions they are feeling. But you have to be careful because you don’t want to lie about that.”

The phrase that trainees hear time and again, which echoes once they arrive at the stores, is “enriching people’s lives.” The idea is to instill in employees the notion that they are doing something far grander than just selling or fixing products. If there is a secret to Apple’s sauce, this is it: the company ennobles employees. It understands that a lot of people will forgo money if they have a sense of higher purpose.

This brainwashing, by the way, is extraordinarily successful, in many ways.

First, it allows Apple to pay its employees much less than they would make selling similar gear at Verizon stores or AT&T stores. (The average Apple Store employee makes about $30,000 a year. The average Verizon store employee gets nearly twice that.)

Second, it’s great for customers–and, therefore, for Apple’s reputation. More than 1 billion people have visited an Apple store–more than 80 million per quarter. Apple “specialists” (Apple’s brilliant term for its retail salespeople) are often the only human from the company a customer will ever interact with. The fact that these folks have been trained in etiquette and feel a sense of mission is a huge asset to the company. There’s nothing that will destroy a company’s reputation and image faster than a cadre of salespeople who look like they’d rather be anywhere but in the store.

Perhaps in response to inquiries from the New York Times, Apple recently gave some of its store employees a raise–a decision for which the company deserves a lot of praise. It is rare in our economy for companies to pay employees more than they have to, and if our country is to recover from its slump, more companies have to do this.

Like other retailers, Apple can afford to pay its store employees more (Apple is now one of the most profitable companies in the world), so the company will barely miss the money.

The next problem Apple–and the rest of the country–needs to solve is how to make these jobs become (or, at least, lead to) more of an actual occupation.

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