Better Jobs, Better Country

June 12, 2018  • Maureen Conway & IDEAS: the Magazine of the Aspen Institute

This article was originally printed in the Summer 2018 issue of IDEAS: the Magazine of the Aspen Institute.

A decade has passed since the country’s deepest economic slide since the Great Depression. While recovery arrived for some soon after the 2008 crisis, those at the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution continue to see eroding wages, fraying benefits, and evaporating job security. Too few jobs today are a real route to an economically stable life.

The Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program has long focused on addressing these issues. In July 2017, the program extended the Institute’s leadership and dialogue model to launch the Job Quality Fellowship, with support from the Prudential and Ford Foundations. From 177 applicants, the program selected 16 local leaders who are actively improving job quality for the people and communities they serve.

Fellows come from all regions and from many disciplines: economic development, workforce development, community- and business-development lending, employers, unions, worker advocacy, higher education. They span the private, nonprofit, and public sectors. In gender, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic class, fellows are as diverse as the country. The bright thread linking them is their success in leading strategies that create higher-quality jobs—often in ways that also improve business performance and the ability to compete and survive in challenging marketplaces. Most of us spend one-third or more of our lives at work. Certainly, sufficient and stable wages to cover living expenses and build some assets, safe working conditions free from harassment or discrimination, a manageable schedule, and benefits are core to defining job quality. So too are meaningful work, having a voice in the workplace, and being valued and respected. The Economic Opportunities Program promotes better job quality in order to progress toward a more equitable future as businesses, workers, investors, government, and others come together to improve the workplace and create more good jobs. Through the program’s support of the Job Quality fellows, it has become clear that these local leaders can shape the future of work.

During their yearlong fellowship, which includes three meetings and work-between sessions, fellows exchange ideas and lessons learned. Poor job quality is not inevitable. And, whatever employers may assume, poor job quality is not a sure path to financial gain. As these fellows and their peers demonstrate, action by government, businesses, communities, and consumers should not be hampered by the misperception that wages, benefits, and working conditions can be changed only through a trade-off that harms businesses. Three fellows—a corporate retailer, a home-care union leader, and a state government workforce- and business-development official—describe the impact of their fellowship experience.

President and CEO, Commonwealth Corporation

My career has long focused on education and training issues in Massachusetts and beyond. I’ve spearheaded workforce development and education policy and legislation for Senator Ted Kennedy, helped Governor Deval Patrick create more innovative K–12 schools, and assisted the president of Northeastern University on his new book about the future of work. In 2017, I was appointed to lead the Commonwealth Corporation, a public-private authority working with Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to grapple with the challenges businesses and workers face, including job quality. We have an annual budget of $55 million and award $20 incumbent workers to advance in their careers and to create new jobs. We particularly focus on people facing extended unemployment and poverty. A grant to the city of Brockton, for example, is engaging people from the substance-abuse community to become certified recovery coaches through training, employer-based internships, and mentoring. The program helps both job seekers and their employers extend services in an area with high rates of addiction.

For me, the fellowship is a unique forum to learn from leaders grappling with similar opportunities, to brainstorm, and to build new initiatives for Massachusetts. A million workers in my state hold low-wage jobs. We can and should extend ladders of opportunity to them through education and building skills as well as partnering with employers to boost workers’ earnings, benefits, retention, and economic stability.

Based on fellows’ ideas, the Commonwealth Corporation is doing more with our fund to improve job quality. Thanks to my peer fellow Anjali Sakaria, who spearheads it, we have a new partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which brings us research and a meeting place. MIT Professor Zeynep Ton identified retail industries that improved business processes, leading to cost savings that were invested back into the workers; we’re interested in expanding these approaches into more businesses. Through our partnership with the Boston Fed, we can share practices and data from firms in industries like retail and food service or hospitality with other employers. And we’ll also create partnerships between companies and organizations that deliver training and education to advance job quality with the grants we administer.

Senior Director, Associate Experience, Walmart, Inc.

When I started as a Walmart cashier a dozen years ago, I imagined it would be pit stop on the way to something better. I didn’t think I’d have a career here. Where I thought I’d find a commitment to the status quo, I found a dedication to innovation. I found great people doing really good work. The company, the world’s largest retailer, offered great opportunities for my career over the decades. Today, I have the privilege of leading the team that is developing and deploying flexible scheduling options for our front-line hourly associates. This is part of Walmart’s $2.7 billion commitment to enhancing the associate experience through increased education, wages, and training.

It is complicated but essential to offer associates options that allow them to have fulfilling career experiences. For example, fulltime workers prefer consistent scheduling and a predictable paycheck; students at a local college might want to pick up hours that fit their changing class schedules through their mobile devices; associates with school-age children want flexible schedules based on their families’ changing needs. Businesses can do scheduling in a way that benefits workers and improves the customer experience as well as the company itself. So far, we’ve implemented the Core Hours program—consistent schedules—in our neighborhood markets. The technology has also spread to supercenters and other facilities.

In 2018, the company raised starting wages to $11 an hour, provided $1,000 bonuses, and expanded paid paternal and maternity leave for hourly associates. In the fellowship, I offer the employer perspective—noting the rapid pace in retail and the imperative to move from talking about options to acting. Most of my peers in the fellowship offer ideas for understanding and meeting the expectations of an incredibly diverse workforce. That is directly applicable to Walmart, and I’m bringing those ideas back for consideration to the central headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

President, SEIU Local 2015

I’ve been president of the SEIU local in California for eight years. We’re working on behalf of 350,000 workers who are employed in home care, skilled nursing facilities, and assisted-living centers. This group has faced discrimination and disadvantage. As work conditions, hours, and job-safety laws were passed to protect American workers, home-care jobs were excluded, because they were family or home-based—and most of the work was done by women and minorities.

Our goal is to be a 21st-century worker organization that builds partnerships and embraces education and innovation so that these workers have quality jobs with livable wages, retirement security, respect, and the right to a union. That will also ensure access to quality care for seniors and others. To my fellowship peers, I bring the worker perspective and lessons hard won through the successful campaign for a $15 minimum wage. Home-care health workers are excluded from the federal minimum wage and other worker protections. Because the likelihood for improvements in federal law is dim, we’re pushing for state and local changes. Here’s one example of a specific idea from the fellowship that we’re running with at SEIU Local 2015: during our first fellowship session, Sean Daniel Murphy, the director of the ICA Fund Good Jobs, and others talked about the importance of wages from jobs. They also said that getting beyond poverty and into a secure quality of life depends on community development and asset building.

At our union, we latched on to the idea of starting a new business to deliver home-based health care, maybe as a workers’ cooperative. There aren’t big barriers like bonding requirements, an expensive building, or extensive regulations to begin offering these services to the elderly and disabled. Good caregivers are the key. And we have those great workers. If we start a new service, we’d of course offer good jobs. But can we also influence community development and build workers’ assets? We contacted an investor and philanthropist to gauge their interest. So far, the discussions are encouraging. And that’s just one example!

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