Workforce Development

Improve Returns on Work

January 29, 2014  • Maureen Conway

In response to last night’s State of the Union address, Aspen Institute program directors are reacting to President Barack Obama’s promises to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the nation today. Below, Maureen Conway, executive director of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program responds to the president’s remarks on improving the economy.

I applaud President Obama for his emphasis on jobs and opportunity in his State of the Union address. Indeed, he said, “The best measure of opportunity is access to a good job.” At the Economic Opportunities Program, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to facilitate access to a good job and work directly with leaders of local job training and economic development efforts, conduct research on program effectiveness, and convene conversations that bring a range of perspectives together to consider how we can make more progress on this measure of opportunity. 

I would like to commend the president on three proposals in particular. First, he recognized that for too long, America’s working people have seen flat or even declining wages, and too many working people find themselves in or near poverty. Recognizing the dignity of work requires ensuring that a full day’s work gets a fair day’s pay. While many businesses owners recognize the contributions of their workers and want to do right by them, they often also feel a competitive pressure to cut labor costs. A healthier and more just wage base can limit this race to the bottom, enhancing workforce stability and reliability, spurring consumer demand, and restoring the dignity of work. 

Second, the president noted that many workers, particularly women, are affected by a lack of paid leave and must often choose between caring for family members and holding on to their jobs. Success at work should not come at the expense of healthy families. We need policies and practices that support both. Reexamining our approach to sick days and family leave is a good place to start. 

Finally, the president mentioned the need for workers to develop new skills as they adapt to a changing economy. This is an issue we have focused on for nearly 20 years in the Economic Opportunities Program as we work with a range of organizations that seek to afford lower income individuals the opportunity to build the skills employers will value. I applaud the president for working to ensure Americans have access to opportunities to improve their skills, whether through job training programs, apprenticeships, or higher education. 

Working Americans need a stable economic floor in which a fair day’s work earns an honest day’s pay. They need policies that allow them to be good workers and good parents, rather than having to choose one or the other. And today’s workers seek opportunities to learn, to do good work, and to reap the rewards of that labor. These policies are complementary, and together can help us restore opportunity and rebuild the middle class. I commend the president for reminding us it is within our reach.