You Can’t Train Away Bad Jobs.
Before COVID-19, work in retail, distribution centers, direct-care, and food service were described as dead-end jobs, with low pay, bad schedules, and little career advancement. Business and public policy leaders encouraged upskilling: more training would allow these workers to qualify for “skilled” jobs in IT, green energy, specialized medicine, and advanced manufacturing, where they could earn higher wages and build a career.
But COVID-19 has shown us how much we need people to work these essential jobs in retail, restaurants, and care, which means these jobs need to work for people. What if instead of focusing on improving the “low skilled” individual, we devoted more resources to improving the millions of low-quality essential jobs?
Here are four reasons why it’s time for job quality to become the new frontier of good business.
1. Bad jobs are a large and growing problem.
Around one of every three American workers, 53 million people, worked in low-wage jobs in 2019, earning median annual wages of $18,000. Job openings are at a record high at 10 million available positions, with industries like accommodation & food service and retail leading the way. Simply put, there are far more workers who need reliable and sufficient income than there are available jobs that offer them. And even as more employers raise their starting wage to $15 per hour, that rate is still not a subsistence wage.
Future of work conversations focus on getting workers into fast growing higher wage occupations, but the growth rate can be misleading. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that some of the fastest growing occupations include many higher wage jobs like wind turbine service technicians ($56,230 median annual wage) and statisticians ($92,270 median annual wage). But because there are currently only 7,000 wind turbine technicians, a 61% growth rate will add just 4,300 total jobs by 2029. Training for skills with growing demand will only pay off if individuals can ultimately find a job in that field.
In contrast, the top three occupations projected by the BLS to add the most jobs are home health and personal care aides (4.6 million total jobs by 2029), fast food and counter workers (4.5 million total jobs by 2029), and restaurant cooks (1.7 million total jobs by 2029), providing a median annual wage of $27,080, $23,860, and $28,800, respectively. If we assume that these occupations are pre-determined to be bad jobs, then we are missing out on an opportunity to create stable employment opportunities for millions of workers.
2. These are important jobs.
When cities began to order businesses to shut down during the pandemic, we used the label of “essential” to describe the jobs that supported the fragile infrastructure for our entire way of living. The value of these jobs was incontestable — they ensured that supply chains for food and goods were not disrupted, shelves were kept stocked, the sick and elderly received care, and our shared spaces were disinfected. Yet 22.3 million of those essential workers earned less than $15 per hour, with limited access to healthcare and sick leave.
Today, labor shortages in these very same industries are hampering US business growth and economic recovery. Without servers and cooks, restaurants can’t keep their doors open. Without truck drivers, fuel deliveries are delayed. Without childcare workers, adults cannot return to work. After spending years warning workers to switch careers to access higher wages and stability—years that could have been spent investing in systems that support higher wages and stable schedules for their current jobs—many have heeded the advice, leaving industries scrambling.
3. These are already skilled jobs.
If we describe these jobs and the workers as “low skilled,” then helping workers acquire more skills is a compelling response to helping them command higher wages. But as our research on the origins of this language shows, the emphasis on skills has a troubling history connected to race, gender, and immigration status.
Still today, these categories affect our assumptions about occupations like direct-care work — jobs held disproportionately by women, people of color, and immigrants. The label of “low skilled” qualitatively dismisses the cognitive, emotional, and communication skills required to work with doctors, clients, and their families, manage a variety of medical conditions, and observe changes in their client’s behavior or condition. Before blaming an individual for lack of skill, we must understand the system that labels them as such.
4. These can be good jobs.
Instead of assuming workers need more skills to be productive, some companies in traditionally low-wage industries design their jobs to meet employees’ basic and higher level needs and drive business performance, as outlined in Zeynep Ton’s book, The Good Jobs Strategy. Retailers like Costco, convenience stores like QuikTrip, and call centers like Quest Diagnostics have made operational choices that allow them to leverage their investments in people to drive better business performance, including higher sales, higher employee productivity, lower employee turnover, and a more differentiated customer offering.
And companies can change — Sam’s Club is demonstrating that strategically simplifying operations and investing in people can increase membership and decrease employee turnover. This research proves there does not need to be a trade-off between good jobs and good performance, even in low price, low margin verticals like grocery.
Entering the New Frontier of Job Quality
It’s time to drop the assumption that upskilling is the only way to get into good careers. US business leaders and policy makers have an opportunity and an obligation to make these essential and growing service jobs into desirable middle class jobs that drive great customer experience and operational excellence. There are too many of these jobs, and they are too important for us to continue to ignore them.
Good Jobs Institute is a 501(C)(3) non-profit founded in 2017. Our mission is to help companies thrive by creating good jobs. Our President and Co-Founder Zeynep Ton is a leading retail and service operations expert, Professor of the Practice at MIT Sloan, and author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits.
This article was co-written by Dan Ford (Good Jobs Fellow), Sarah Kalloch (GJI Executive Director), and Amanda Silver (Good Jobs Fellow).