#1] Make Bad Jobs Better: Forging a “Better Jobs Strategy” — Steven L. Dawson

A bad job is not simply the absence of a good job. A bad job destabilizes the individual, her family and the community. A bad job not only fails to pay enough for decent food and shelter for a worker’s family, it can risk her health, disrupt any chance for a predictable family life, undermine her dignity, and deny her voice within the workplace.

21 responses:

  1. Di Findley
    Executive Director
    Iowa CareGivers

    Kudos to Steve Dawson, one of my mentors, for his tireless work over the years in the push for quality jobs for direct care workers. As the founder and director of Iowa CareGivers, a state-based nonprofit devoted to direct care workers and their issues, I agree with many of the thought provoking comments that have been submitted. The issue of low-paying health sector jobs is rooted in policy, politics, and power and we believe that lasting change will require far more than an increase in the minimum wage or employer-based “job training” and my comments will get more into the weeds on the issues.

    1) We did not support legislation to increase minimum wage in Iowa because the legislation did not contain “cliff effect” safety net language referenced in a previous comment. Raising the minimum wage without regard to the loss of child care assistance, and affordable health care for their children only leaves individuals worse off. Workers refuse raises because they can’t afford to lose those supports. These kinds of disincentives built into the system prevent people from getting ahead; 2) Further expansion of the earned income tax credit would help. Some congressional members have proposed tax credits for family caregivers which is good. Perhaps a tax credit for high demand health care sector jobs would be a good way to recruit more people into the field; 3) some job training programs in Iowa refuse to provide nurse aide training because they don’t want to train people to enter jobs at poverty wages; 4) some state and community college job training programs are more focused on recruiting people into manufacturing and technology jobs because they are higher paying; 5) those in direct care need standardized training with a state-recognized credential that they own and is portable. Their current training is often the responsibility of the employer and is based on workplace setting and population served rather than being based on their having the skills and knowledge to serve people of all ages and abilities regardless the setting. Iowa has a lengthy body of incremental (far too slow) work in this area known as Prepare to Care but there hasn’t been the political will to institutionalize the initiative; 6) direct care workers need a continuing education standard that keeps them active and eligible for employment rather than being governed by an outdated federal law that requires Certified Nurse Aides (CNAs) to work 8 consecutive hours in a two-year period of time in a skilled nursing facility to maintain their active status. If they leave to work in a home care or some other setting for two years or longer, they can’t go back to work in a skilled facility without the inconvenience and cost of taking the training over; 7) direct care workers need to have seats at tables where policies are being made about them and the people they serve. Past coalition work led to a Direct Care Worker Task Force which was legislatively directed and Governor-appointed in 2005. It was the first time that a direct care worker was ever appointed by a Governor to any state initiative.

    Finally, I think we sometimes unintentionally facilitate a self-fulfilling prophecy or perhaps self-fulfilling policy when we continue to label these very important jobs as “bad jobs” and those working in them as “working poor” and “low-wage earners”. I have been told on numerous occasions by direct care workers that when we have used such language that it is offensive to them. Granted these workers need better wages, benefits, and more opportunities for training and advancement, but they aren’t “bad jobs”. I worked as a nurse aide for 13 years and loved the work. How one direct care worker described the work to us is, “It’s the Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” Thank you for this great opportunity to dialogue about these important issues. And Steven…thank you for all that you do!!! Di

    • Di: You raise an important issue with respect to language. Have you received any responses to that. How do we get the point across without the disrespect … In a two word bullet

      • Thanks for your response Anne. I’m simply saying that using language that focuses on low paying jobs with few benefits and educational opportunities may be less offensive to those who work in the field, rather than labeling the individuals as low-wage earners who are poorly benefitted and are inadequately educated or trained. Make sense?

  2. Susan Crandall
    Director, Center for Social Policy
    University of Massachusetts Boston

    I wholeheartedly support the goal to make bad jobs better through changing employer practices and supporting alternative forms of employment, such as social enterprises, B-Corps, and employee ownership. Steve Dawson’s paper does a terrific job outlining this strategy; nonetheless, a deeper consideration of the barriers to implementation and exploration of potential solutions is needed.

    If the goal is to move from financial instability to stability, we need to acknowledge “cliff effects”, the impact of small increases in income on financial stability. Higher paying quality jobs may not be desirable for low-income workers, who need to retain public supports to make ends meet. In fact, research from the Center for Social Policy shows that as the income of low wage workers increases, net financial resources decreases.

    Not only must workforce providers work in concert with partners and allies such as community economic development organizations, but also social service providers and state agencies, given that many workforce clients are regularly interacting with – and taking direction from – these organizations about their training and employment goals.

    To realize the vision of making bad jobs better, workforce providers must be measured on job quality and not just quantity of placements, with a drive towards consistency in measurement across government and philanthropic funding sources.

    We also need to recognize that better quality jobs in typically low-sectors have lower turnover and are often filled by college students, underemployed workers, and retirees. This makes placement in good jobs an uphill battle, and underscores the need for larger scale policy changes, such as expanding EITC and paid leave.

    The reality is that many training providers struggle to engage employers and achieve placements, so it’s unlikely that they will build the technical capacity to change employer practices. We must instead consider partnering with those that have the credibility and know-how to do this successfully.

    Finally policies must be created or changed to ensure that employers can access funds, such as state incumbent workers training funds, to change employer practices to build quality jobs for lower-paid employers.

  3. Lisa Gurgone, MS
    Executive Director
    Home Care Aide Council

    Thank you to Steven Dawson for crafting this engaging piece.

    Founded in 1967, the Home Care Aide Council is a nonprofit trade association established when home care agency employers came together to enhance the quality of care throughout the home care industry by focusing on the advancement of the home care aide workforce.

    Starting in 2001 with the Extended Care Career Ladder Initiative and continuing today through work enhanced by the Personal and Home Care Aide State Training Initiative awarded to the Commonwealth in 2010, Massachusetts has been at the forefront of bringing together employer partners, the workforce development community, and education providers to craft solutions to support low-wage workers throughout long-term care settings. We have, as a network, implemented many of the suggestions outlined in this piece– both at individual home care agencies and through dynamic collaborative partnerships involving multiple entities. These initiatives include: the development of core-competencies, advanced home care aide positions, and career ladders for these workers that have been embedded at the home care agency, training provider, and community college levels; a grant initiative funded through the Department of Higher Education to craft supervision and leadership training for managers of low-wage workers; partnerships with community-based organizations to provide access to financial literacy education and free direct care training; grant funding to conduct focus groups and surveys to hear directly from these workers; and mentorship/preceptor/team leader approaches implemented to harness the experience of existing workers to train and support new employees.

    Yet, while our Council and many partners have been fortunate to receive various streams of funding to address these challenges and support this work, we enter the growing direct care workforce crisis with a great deal of work still ahead of us. Many of the issues noted throughout this piece highlight the challenges we face and the larger policy initiatives that are harder to implement. Although we have lead the charge for career ladders for home care aides in Massachusetts, our work has certainly highlighted the limitations of these initiatives, particularly within an inadequate reimbursement structure funded through government programs. Maintaining and institutionalizing effective strategies is extremely challenging when the funding for these programs ends and the financial pressures to meet industry demands continue to mount. We wholeheartedly agree with the recommendation to address the inconsistent and unpredictable hours as a means to improve direct care jobs. Looking at ways to cluster authorization of services and address many of the “benefit cliff” issues that low-wage workers face is at the forefront of the Council’s current strategies to support these essential workers.

    There are many partners actively interested and engaged in this work. Our goal should be to bring together existing best practices and lessons learned in many sectors in order to build the sustainable support we need, on the local, state, and national levels. Only then will we be able to develop a sustainable agenda to support low-wage earners and their families. While any one piece of the puzzle is important – wages, career ladders, training – we will not be able to truly address the crisis we face without looking at ways to combat the entire problem.

  4. Lou Miceli
    Executive Director

    Given JobsFirstNYC’s mission, and with the recognition that the majority of young people who connect to the labor market for the first time do so through typically lower-wage, higher-turnover jobs – large numbers of them in two of the industries with real-wage declines, food service and retail – I am grateful to Steven Dawson and to the Pinkerton Foundation for lifting up the issue of job quality for broader discussion in Making Bad Jobs Better. It is a great contribution to an important conversation.

    A fundamental premise of the paper is that the majority of underemployed workers (both younger and older) are not likely to transcend their particular labor market. While the idealist in me may wish to disagree, I concur with this based on my own experience over my career. If this is indeed correct, then ultimately labor market access for young adults is an equity issue, not an equality issue. If economic circumstances for the majority of low-income workers are not going to improve substantially over their lifetimes in terms of earning potential, savings, and other key assets, then they will not be positioned to be on equal footing with their more economically advantaged counterparts. What drives fairness when essential class differences will persist is unto itself a quandary for our field, but something worthy of careful consideration and unpacking from both a policy and practice perspective.

    If the goal of influencing job quality is to improve conditions for certain groups of people, then we have to consider what indeed does motivate people, even when their financial dreams remain unrealized over time. While it may not be employer-facing in its premise, what motivates people to continue to strive – really pursuing their personal dreams – is absolutely critical to employers, because what sustains people in low wage, high-turnover jobs with less than ideal working conditions has everything to do with this intrinsic motivation. Many worthy efforts in our field strive to address this very issue, something we have tried to lift up in our own work, having done so recently with the publication of Optimizing Talent.

    It is my hope that this dialogue can serve to help our collective field (practitioners, policy influencers, employer intermediaries, funders and others) to engage more thoughtfully and deeply with employers that may have much to gain by tapping into that intrinsic motivation that the paper identifies. I look forward to future discussions on this timely and relevant topic.

  5. John Hale
    The Hale Group — Consultants and Advocates
    Ankeny, Iowa

    As always, Steven provokes sorely needed thought and discussion.

    After reading the paper a couple times, I’m left with a certain amount of ambivalence … that while the effort to make bad jobs better is laudable, the end result which we seem satisfied with is a better bad job.

    I am challenged to accept better bad jobs as a worthy goal or result.

    Yes, a better bad job is preferable to a “more-bad” job, but is that really enough?

    In the case of Iowa’s and the nations largest workforce — those who work in direct care assisting and supporting those who can no longer live independently — I’m reluctant to view a better bad job as a success.

    I look at the bigger picture and see a huge infrastructure in place in this state and nation designed to support those in bad jobs. Some have made the case that this infrastructure is a reason why there are so many bad jobs, or why people stay in them.

    We have the EITC, food stamps, housing subsidies, transportation subsidies, home weatherization subsidies, utility subsidies, child care subsidies, health care subsidies, and others that offer supports and assistance.

    Call me crazy (which would not be anything startling) but let’s do a what if. What if we took all the funds used for the subsidies, added in all the administrative costs and overhead involved in their administration, and totaled them up?

    Then, let’s take that total and start over. Re-think our goals and objectives. Redesign and redistribute the $$ in ways that pull people out of the despair of a bad job and give them a ladder upward … a ladder that leads to something other than a better or so-so or really bad job.

    Simplistic? Admittedly. But worthy of being factored into the conversation? I think so.

    Thanks again to Steven for keen insights and for challenging the reader to ponder what is possible.

  6. Jerry Rubin
    President and Chief Executive Officer

    I think your analysis of the good jobs issue is spot on. I think where I have difficulty is the role of a workforce intermediary organization like ours. I see the good jobs strategy as having three primary strategy buckets: 1. Improving company practices (Zaynep Ton in my opinion has done the most sophisticated and compelling work on this score). 2. Changing public policy (minimum wage, union climate, etc.) and 3. Building skills.

    On #1, improving company practices, I think you get at the challenge here in your paper on employer engagement. In my experience, we are best able to work with companies when we are “brought inside the tent.” This typically happens when, over years, our employer partners pay us (which they regularly do) to do progressively more sophisticated projects with them until we reach the point at which we are seen as an extension of their HR department and HR strategy. This has happened with about 10 of the 25 companies that pay us to train their employees, the rest being more transactional. The problem is that, at the risk of patting ourselves on the back, I can’t think of many workforce organization who have the competence, experience, and high level of trust to be “brought inside the tent.” I think it is presumptuous and a bit arrogant to think organizations can help change company practices unless they are inside the tent,but the workforce development field has very low capacity in this realm in my experience.

    On #2, changing public policy, I have very mixed feelings. We definitely do your #4 (build business expertise) and #5 (Highlight exemplars). However, while we certainly cheer those doing 1-3 from the sidelines, and help when we can, we are very careful not to do anything publicly or loudly that might damage our ability to get inside as many tents as possible. This is a complicated trade-off, and perhaps I am too cautious, but would love to discuss this and be challenged.

    On #3, or building skills, I think that you have created a false dichotomy in your paper. It is certainly true that there are not enough good jobs. However, we know from individual experience, and our data, that nearly every student at JVS that we help to increase their skills, gets a better job (defined as a combination of pay, hours, and benefits). So, we see our role as providing an accessible continuum of services that allow our students to go from illiteracy to college, and the higher quality jobs that are associated with increasingly high skill levels, as they can, want, and are able. It is not easy for our students or us, but we have created that continuum of skills and job quality. So, I think that both are true: higher skills is related to higher quality jobs, and higher skills is not the only solution to the good jobs problem. It’s just our solution and what we know how to do best.

  7. Bob Kuttner
    The American Prospect

    This has some great insights in it — but it leaves out the role of power. None of this will change without a shift in how much power corporations have and how much power workers have, either as individuals or as a collectivity. It is a power shift, not a technology shift, that has degraded job quality, security, and earnings relative to the postwar social contract. It will take a power shift to restore some balance and to implement many of these good ideas.

    • Thank you Bob, for taking the time to comment. I agree with your point on the central issue of power. Though not a centerpiece of this document, the paper does state:

      “Yet at the same time, this strategy requires a counterbalancing emphasis on building the voice and power of workers, so that workers themselves act as their own leaders. Therefore, in addition to the necessity of supporting the legal right of workers to organize and secure labor representation, new forms of institutionalizing worker voice are required. However, these new forms of worker organization must become self-sustaining, and thus not entirely dependent on philanthropy, and that is where cooperatives and other labor-based enterprises—businesses owned and controlled by workers—may one day come to play a central role in forging worker agency and self-determination.”

      In any case, much more must be done. Thanks again for your comment.

      ~ Steven Dawson

  8. Mae Watson Grote
    Founder & Chief Executive Officer
    The Financial Clinic

    Dawson’s call for an expanded approach to building better jobs for low-income workers can’t come soon enough. Real wages have barely grown for decades and with fewer middle class jobs available, prospects for the working poor are dim. Does that mean we’re casting low-wage workers and their families into lives of financial instability? Does it mean that because there is no clear trajectory, there is no clear path out of financial problems for this country’s millions of working poor? Dawson’s work significantly advances our understanding of not only what is possible for low-wage workers, but also what is just.

    That said, my caution is that readers not confuse the preference for financial stability over financial mobility as an inability to plan for the future, or worse, “giving up.” Through the Clinic’s work, we’ve found that customers whom we help arm with action-oriented financial goals and detailed plans for progress, have a clear advantage over those who struggle with being forward-thinking or those who can only focus on their deficits. There is a spectrum of financial stability to mobility and it’s important to note that forward movement is progress no matter where it happens along the trajectory.

    At The Financial Clinic, we have always partnered with workforce development because we know the impact that financial security building strategies can have on workers. I invite fellow readers to check out the Clinic’s approach in Raising the Floor — Turning Good Theory into Good Practice:
    http://thefinancialclinic.org/topics/raising-the-floor-turning-good-theory-into-good-practice/ Many thanks to Dawson and the Pinkerton Foundation for raising the conversation and highlighting some of the ways bad jobs can be made better.

  9. Great insights/recommendations Steven Dawson!

    Pinkerton Foundation and Steve need a social media presence – I just posted 8 tweets inspired by this paper and it is catching fire!

    My millennial colleagues (who run the companies that employ this very workforce) need to see this!

    Another recommendation: submit this for peer-review to codify in academic literature and to have more force in influencing policy/action.

    Great work!

    Andrey Ostrovsky, MD
    CEO | Care at Hand

  10. Steve’s paper is excellent, providing an experienced practitioner’s insight into the necessary re-framing for a successful better jobs strategy for low income people and empowerment of workers to achieve quality of life for themselves and their families.

    That said, Steve’s analysis might be taken another important step.

    To make bad jobs better for low income people, labor and workforce development practitioners, policymakers, and philanthropy and government leaders should not ignore health reform. Exceptional opportunities exist NOW for collaborating with consumers/workers/families, providers, employers and government in re-designing the health delivery and financing system…. Let’s focus together on the mandate to integrate social and environmental determinants of health to improve equity and empower people.

    The push is on for “building a road to somewhere,” a drive for partnership to integrate social and environmental determinants of health (housing, transportation, food/nutrition, security/safety, education, etc.) through innovation, planning, regulation, incentives, and advocacy into health care delivery and community wellness. Evidence-based with potential to harness powerful financing and best practice solutions at local and state levels, we need more collaboration among workforce transformation, health care delivery, and public health/human rights, and environmental leadership and employers to achieve better jobs for low income people in the United States.

    Having worked as a philanthropy and strategy advisor to foundations and nonprofits for many years, we see significant movement toward improved outcomes and innovation, but not enough to realistically move the dial on individual and societal problems. More alignment and integration of strategies and relationships are necessary to improve job quality as well as poor/non-existent housing, food and income insecurity, fragmented transportation, a broken corrections system, community and domestic violence, and threats to the health and sustainability of our environment.

    The Pinkerton Foundation papers series is a fantastic forum. I would encourage more voices in dialogue from cross-sectoral networks, such as those represented by Community Catalyst, MLPB (Medical Legal Partnership Boston), and Practice Green Health focusing on the healthcare and human services sector’s challenges in leading the integration of social and environmental determinants of health and health innovation. Better jobs are tied to better population health.

    Looking forward to more papers, and the conversation ahead.

  11. Rebecca Lurie
    Community & Worker Ownership Project
    Murphy Institute for Worker Education
    School of Professional Studies- City University of New York

    This Pinkerton Paper sings my song! Words like dignity, agency, organizing, self-worth, stability, respect are music to my ears. When workforce development can build pathways to this we do much more than create one job placement at a time. We contribute to the work of building a more just society, rooted in self-actualization and empowerment.

    Dawson advises that workforce development “practitioners and their funders must develop new expertise, new relationships and new resources, and perhaps even new organizations.” I argue, the “new” he refers to is really modeled after the old. Union organizing and workers’ victories show this. Worker well-being and stability are inherent elements in union contracts. Much more fair wages are negotiated in contracts. These contracts guarantee worker engagement through representation, establish mechanisms to manage fair distribution of hours, shifts, assignments, promotions and grievance procedures. Through these same contracts, management agrees to a shared approach for training for new and incumbent workers. (Albeit less now than in the past.) Historically it is unions who championed (both on the job and in legislation) the standards for good health and safety practices. Pensions, access to health care, clear wage standards, are all agreed to and signed for in union contracts. The union movement historically created stability for a huge swath of the working class. Maybe what is old is new again.

    With the precipitous decline in unionization and yet a growing awareness of or reference to “good jobs”, (call them high road, social entrepreneurship, a triple bottom line company, or even best yet, worker-owned cooperatives), we need to reference the lessons learned from a global labor movement as we collaborate with industry to develop their workforce. Dawson sparks this thinking. The labor movement, the worker centers of today, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15 and all the justice based work that surrounds us are part of a movement for shared prosperity, community wealth and human empowerment. Our work in workforce development could and should include teaching this and making sure that every worker who goes to work understands how they hold the power to organize for and participate in a better life. We talk about teaching soft skills and hard skills as if being punctual and knowing the tools of your trade will get you a better job. This does not take into account structural inequalities that made the one percent rich and the rest of us at their service. We need old-fashioned organizing for rights and control now more than ever.

    It is neo-liberalism that built the strong opposition to the labor movement and that makes it seem so irrelevant now. It is not taught in most workforce development programs because we obsess with satisfying the other customer. Industry matters, yes. But just and fair industry practices matter more. Acquiescing to the “the bottom line” as if profit for the company was all that was will not tilt the scale to better work. This is what workforce development practitioners and funders need to take back.

    The labor movement figured this out years ago when they contractually created labor-management training funds. They understood that incumbent worker training was a partnership with industry and that workers’ representatives needed to assure that the partnership was in place and that workers were respected for all the aspects that make their jobs good.

    We are at a new era. Union representation of workers is on the precipitous decline. But a clamoring for high road employment is on the rise. Whether with organizing skills or cooperative business skills, let’s make sure that workers coming through our programs understand the ways to make bad jobs better.

  12. Steven Dawson’s article points out what businesses and institutions could do to attract, retain and solidify their workforce. Identifying positive role models to follow and policies to implement helps 1) businesses succeed, 2) business trade associations educate their members, 3) foundations establish new criteria for funding proposals, 4) people to live a more dignified life, 5) political leaders to understand how to help their communities, and hopefully 6) communities to prosper. In essence what I tried to accomplish in coauthoring “Sustainable Communities – Creating a Durable Local Economy.”

  13. John Weiler
    Chief Operating Officer
    Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners

    Steven Dawson’s paper on how we can “Make Bad Jobs Better” is lucid, though-provoking, and practical in laying out core design elements and policy alternatives to support improved “demand-side” strategies to improve job quality.

    One of Dawson’s great strengths is that he brings the grounded and informed perspective of a practitioner to his policy recommendations. Our organization, Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, has worked with Cooperative Home Care Associates and other employers to serve many lower-wage workers. We see first-hand among our thousands of clients that the preponderance of lower-wage workers value “financial stability” above higher wages, because they recognize intuitively what the asset development research shows—that a financial buffer helps them to reduce stress, absorb financial shocks and plan for their long-term goals. Not coincidentally, improved financial security also makes them better employees. Money worries are the leading cause of stress and higher stress has been show to lead to higher absenteeism. This is probably why employers across industries (health care, fast food, warehousing, custodial service, etc.) have begun to contract with us and others for “financial wellness” services and other job quality enhancements. These employer initiatives are also why I would suggest that the last element in the demand-side job quality strategies (“Highlight Exemplars”) should be elevated in order to combat the prevailing wisdom that labor is a cost to be minimized rather than an asset to be leveraged.

    I agree with Professor Osterman’s position that the exemplars are necessary but not sufficient to build a thorough understanding of the best approaches to improving job quality while simultaneously benefiting employers. Nevertheless, I think that holding up the example of more of these firms could create a virtuous cycle of highlighting promising employment approaches, building a database for research and policy analysis, and, not incidentally, benefiting a substantial number of workers in the process.

    Kudos to Dawson and Pinkerton for provoking an important discussion. I look forward to the next papers in the series.

  14. Dale Grant
    Executive Chair
    Grant Associates

    All of us in the workforce business recognize that the issues surrounding “bad jobs” are much greater than simply low pay, but few could articulate those issues, and potential solutions, in language that is as rich and compelling, as Steve has done in this paper. The strategies in the article for making good jobs better are comprehensive and doable and they make enormous sense. Add the fact that employers that embrace these strategies, even the simple ones, will draw more qualified candidates, there are strong competitive reasons for employers to agree.

    The study quoted in the paper finding that a large sample of poor people overwhelmingly preferred financial security to moving up the income ladder is important in the development of workforce strategies. Still this should not be a one or the other question. The two are inextricably tied. Financial security for many requires moving up the income ladder and even a steady job at $10 an hour or $20,000 a year is not nearly enough for many people.

    Our experience supports Steve’s suggestion that education is not for everyone, and for those not ready, education is a drain on resources. At the same time we have found that credentials are important, not just because they mean higher wages, but also because they mean higher self worth. As Steve suggests, the employer can play a role here by providing the platform for earning credentials.

    In short, it is a privilege to get the benefit of Steve’s outstanding work on this subject of job quality, a cause he has championed for some time. We look forward to the future papers.

  15. Comment
    Paul Osterman
    Professor, MIT School of Management

    We are in an era in which, for the first time in far too long, serious national attention is being paid to inequality. Historically when strategies to address poverty or low wages are on the table attention naturally turns to education and training, in other words to improving the skills of the workforce. This undoubtedly makes sense. Skill requirements are rising albeit not as fast as proponents of polarization might suggest. Their view that we are becoming a barbell job market, only very high or very low skilled work, is wrong. But skills are certainly important and it is certainly true that many people who today earn low wages do need more training. But a pure education/skills strategy is radically incomplete. Consider a simple thought experiment: if we could snap our fingers and suddenly grant everyone community college or even college level education would the distribution of earnings suddenly change for the better? Certainly not. We must also work to improve the quality of jobs themselves and in this essay Steve Dawson does an excellent job of making this case and offering examples of what is possible.

    I have no disagreement with the case that Dawson makes. Instead I want to briefly make additional points regarding evidence and policy. These points are less directed to Dawson than to the tenor of the entire discussion about what has been termed the “high road” strategy or the “good jobs strategy” aimed at improving outcomes for people. In my view there is a weakness in proponents’ arguments and also a failure to come to grips with the hardest questions.

    The weakness is that the literature and policy discussion tends to argue by pointing to examples of high road firms and in effect saying “See, these firms do it. Other’s should too.” But the problem is twofold. First, many of these examples tend to be idiosyncratic. They have founders whose values pushed them in that direction or they are worker cooperatives or there is something else unique about them. Given this fact it is not clear that their decision to follow the high road is replicable.

    Consistent with this concern is what might be thought of as an inside baseball researcher’s issue but which is also in my view central. These examples suffer from what scholars term selection bias. They represent success cases but we never see the failures. Consider hypothetically that 20 firms in an industry attempted to follow the high road and 18 fail, going bankrupt or finding that strategy too costly and not profitable. Two manage to continue. I then write a book about those two and say “look, they did it. Everyone should.” The problem is obvious: we gain no understanding from this style of advocacy about when it works and when it does not nor about who adopts and who does not.

    With this in mind my view is that the next step in the discussion is to think hard about how to do just this: understand both the determinants of adoption and the determinants of success. This will mean a focus on the internal dynamics of the firm: who manages it, how is power distributed, what values the firm has, what voice employees have. It also means careful attention to context and supporting systems: incentives, regulatory environment, availability of an adequate workforce, competitive environment, nature of financing system, and so on. With all this in hand we can craft effective public policy that moves us in the right direction.

    Steve Dawson’s essay is important because it sets the stage for this discussion and does so very effectively.

  16. Fred Dedrick
    Executive Director
    National Fund for Workforce Solutions

    Steven Dawson’s essay “Make Bad Jobs Better” is an extremely insightful and provocative call to rethink the basic workforce development strategy. It debunks the myth that every low wage worker will, with enough training and education, secure a middle class job and live happily every after. It challenges the assumption that workforce professionals are without leverage when providing services to employers. And it makes the critically important point that bad jobs are harmful for the individual, for their families, and for your community.

    What Dawson demands is a clear, honest look at the fundamental relationship between the employer and the workforce development professional. He makes the case that now is the time to evolve this relationship into one of mutual respect, not where the employer is the customer who must be served without question, but where the workforce professional can engage the employer, suggest a different strategy and offer examples of practices that can reduce turnover, improve employee morale, and generate innovation.

    Dawson recognizes that the potential for promoting job quality rests also with the many employers who are fully aware that a good job is a competitive advantage. And it is that understanding that makes this paper one of the building blocks for promoting community prosperity. When employers, workers and workforce professionals collaborate to promote better jobs they begin to create a powerful narrative: better jobs support the growth of a higher quality of life for all residents. This has the potential to forge a community point of view.

    What adds to Dawson’s persuasiveness are the numerous practical examples, both simple and more challenging, that he provides about how to improve jobs that lack decent pay, regular and predictable hours, basic safety standards, and access to training. In my experience at the National Fund for Workforce Solutions and our national network of more than 30 communities it is extremely important to be able to speak in very specific terms about what business practices can make a difference. This is especially true today when so many politicians, academics and foundation leaders are lamenting America’s substantial inequities.

    Of course, major challenges, while acknowledged, are not addressed in this short paper: How does the workforce development field develop the experienced professionals who can engage employers with sufficient industry knowledge to change the conversation? How do we develop and support the employer leaders who will promote a message that may make other employers uncomfortable or even threatened? Will the economic development community recognize its critical role in promoting better jobs or will, a job, any job, remain its standard for success?

    However, these questions only arise because Dawson has done such an enviable job of making his case. Without his persuasive arguments we would have never thought to ask them.

    And perhaps, in a future paper, he may answer them.

  17. Laurie Dien
    Vice President – Programs
    The Pinkerton Foundation

    To our colleagues we hope that you will add your thoughts on these papers- whether you agree, disagree and/or have other suggestions. We look forward to hearing from you so that we can have a much needed dialogue on these topics. Already with this first paper Steven has enabled me to think more deeply about our grant making especially with regard to entry level jobs and how they can be made more acceptable.

    • Comments on Make Bad Jobs Better

      Glenn Scott Davis
      Program and Policy Specialist
      City of Seattle
      Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs

      Ideas matter. Steve Dawson’s paper “Make Bad Jobs Better” is an invitation to policymakers and practitioners alike to engage in a re-visioning of traditional concepts and practices in the fields of economic, workforce, and community development and to redefine what “mobility” means for workers in an economy with so many low-wage jobs. Dawson’s paper questions and challenges traditional thinking about the purposes and goals of public, employer, and philanthropic investments in our workforce and education systems – and the results we should expect in return. Dawson calls for policies and programs that would move larger numbers of low-wage workers and jobseekers into secure employment and financial stability by improving the quality of lower wage jobs. How to engage with employers to that end is of keen interest to workforce professionals in Washington State who seek to better and more equitably serve the needs and interests of low-income jobseekers and workers as part of larger economic development plans.

      In Seattle, our local economy is “booming” with its low rates of unemployment and the growth of professional and high-wage jobs. At the same time, economic and labor market forces are producing greater inequality as income disparities widen with the significant growth of low-wage jobs and the ensuing extraordinarily high rates of underemployment and soaring housing costs. While the City of Seattle has made real progress with its progressive minimum wage, paid sick leave, priority hire, and labor standards enforcement laws, racial and other inequities persist in our labor markets as immigrant and refugees, people of color, and low-income adult and English language learners must compete with more advantaged populations for the available “good” jobs.

      At the City of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugees Affairs, we work to build equitable career pathways for immigrant and refugee communities. In 2015, working with our City’s Office of Economic Development and Human Service Department, and a group of key workforce, education, and community stakeholders, we launched the Ready to Work program to demonstrate a scalable community-based model of ESL, career development, and employment utilizing a framework of integrated support services, employer engagement, quality jobs, and long-term economic stability. While many of the participants in this – and other programs like it – are advancing to higher levels of ESL and continuing education, the overarching goal of these participants is to secure a stable and secure job in the short run, and as Dawson points out, in a labor market that offers a shortage of “good” jobs.

      Dawson’s insightful paper offers many relevant suggestions, but leaves many questions unanswered. How can we, as policymakers and practitioners, work together to support the implementation of a low-income worker “quality jobs” strategy with deep employer engagement? In Seattle and in Washington State, we are exploring this very question with our government, employer, community, labor, educational, and workforce stakeholders. Dawson’s paper “Making Bad Jobs Betters” will make a significant contribution to that dialogue.