Employment and Jobs

Trillion Dollar Opportunities: Quality Jobs Should Be A Priority in Federal Procurement

March 30, 2021  • Tomás E. Durán & Mark G. Popovich

Within the first days of the new administration, President Biden signed a new “Made in America” executive order, which aims to generate manufacturing jobs through government demand for $400 billion in American products, materials, and services. As a candidate, Biden also committed to infrastructure investments as a keystone to job creation. As the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan was enacted March 11, an infrastructure proposal to spend $1 trillion or more is expected imminently within the next two weeks.

That’s a great step forward. Job creation is essential to our recovery from the entwined pandemic and economic traumas.

But at this crisis point, we must apply all tools to strengthen the anemic recovery, especially for lower-wage, women, and BIPOC workers. The country cannot again accept, as in the aftermath of the Great Recession, that any job is a good job. “Buy America” and the infrastructure plan should do more to reward good companies, yield quality jobs, and offer accessible and inclusive opportunities for all—especially for people and communities too long left out of economic mobility and security. There is no better time than now.

Placing requirements on procurement to achieve socioeconomic goals goes back over many decades. Set-asides to boost contracting with minority-, women-, and veteran-headed businesses are prominent examples. Prevailing wage requirements and minimum wage/leave standards for federal contracted workers are other cases in point. That’s a solid foundation to build upon.

The administration should add procurement provisions that directly factor job quality, along with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), for companies seeking to do business under the Buy America order and infrastructure programs. We propose that job quality standards consider pay levels (expanding beyond prevailing wage requirements), as well as worker retention/turnover rates for frontline workers, which are associated with higher job quality. These metrics can be precisely defined and the data are easily reported by employers. For DEI, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission has set criteria encompassing race, ethnicity, disability, and gender, and all companies with more than 100 workers are already capable of reporting and analyzing data by diversity category and pay band. We urge extending procurement provisions under these initiatives to include job quality disaggregated by gender, race, ethnicity, and disability. For greater fairness, we’d further recommend that assessments of bidding firms should be benchmarked by industry and firm size, as well.

These job quality and DEI procurement criteria would augment, rather than replace, cost or value assessments of proposals, and will benefit procuring agencies, taxpayers, workers, employers, and our communities. There’s strong evidence that firms that pay poverty wages or violate workplace laws deliver poor-quality products and services, entail higher risk, and are more likely to run into performance problems, delays, and cost overruns. Poor job companies also offload costs to taxpayers, as their workers are more likely to rely on public safety net and nonprofit assistance programs. And it is a winning business model as high-road, inclusive employers tend to outperform others in their sector. Government procurement should credit companies that offer good jobs to an inclusive workforce and in this way spread good practices and outcomes more widely.

Expanding federal procurement considerations to encompass job quality and DEI for workers will not be simple or without struggles. Procurement serves multiple purposes and is risk-averse in practice. The status quo may well be preferred by some powerful forces. Procurement regulations, rules, and award decisions are already challenging, and the federal procurement workforce needs bolstering. However, these are challenges that can and should be overcome.

A large portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is featured in the redecorated Oval Office of the new president. In 1932, FDR laid out a New Deal cornerstone that is a most apt guide for today: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

This is a time to try everything. With an additional trillion dollars or more soon to be flowing through federal procurement, we have a unique opportunity to align public spending with what the economy needs and the public supports: higher job quality and accessible and inclusive opportunities for all.


On the @AspenInstitute blog, #JobQuality Fellow Tomás Durán of @ConcernCapital and @mpopov1229 of @AspenWorkforce outline why we need to prioritize job quality and equity in federal procurement.

Let’s put our tax dollars to work for workers. From the New Deal to Build Back Better, we must align infrastructure investment with high #jobquality and inclusive opportunities for all.

Not every job is a good job. Public procurement should do more to reward good companies, promote #jobquality, and offer accessible and inclusive opportunities for all. There is no better time than now.

#JobQuality and DEI now! Public procurement presents a unique opportunity to align spending with what the economy needs and the public supports: higher #jobquality and inclusive opportunities for all.

Taxpayers often pick up the tab for bad jobs, through safety net and nonprofit assistance programs. To counter this, we should adopt #jobquality as a requirement for companies doing business with the government.

About the Authors

Tomas Duran

Tomás E. Durán is the president of Concerned Capital, a boutique economic development firm with a focus on engaging seller-owners in transferring ownership to workers and the senior vice president for economic resiliency with Community Health Councils. In his prior work as the administrator for special projects at USC Center for Economic Development, he strengthened local manufacturing companies by improving their job quality and increasing their access to federal procurement contracts. He is also a member of the Aspen Institute’s Job Quality Fellowship, overseen by the Economic Opportunities Program.

Mark G. Popovich is the director of Good Companies/Good Jobs, an initiative of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. He works on job quality and how to align incentives for boosting good jobs and DEI through public procurement, anchor institutions, impact investment, and other programs.

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