In April 2022, Peter Coy of the New York Times wrote, “If quantity of jobs were all that mattered, workers would be in heaven right now.” In the last year, American workers have clearly shown that quantity is not all that matters.
Workers are quitting their jobs at high rates, citing low pay, no opportunities for advancement and feeling disrespected as their primary reasons for leaving. Worker disengagement is up 4 percentage points since 2020. Worker strikes are also on the rise, with 2022 seeing some of the highest numbers of work stoppages in the last decade.
These signs of worker discontent stand in contrast to the rosy picture painted by low unemployment numbers and wage growth, and give credence to the growing call for a holistic understanding of the job market, and new indicators for measuring the health of the American workforce.
Wages certainly matter, particularly in the millions of cases when they aren’t enough. Despite inflation, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn’t changed in 15 years. Even with some states and jurisdictions setting higher minimum wages, 1 in 3 American workers earns less than $15/hour. Those percentages are even higher for women and higher yet for women of color. The result of these low wages is that millions of people are working and living in poverty and anxiety.
And wages alone aren’t even what many workers say matters the most to them. They want to be able to be with their families in times of need, to work in a welcoming and safe place, to have room for growth in their jobs. They want “economic dignity.” But even while companies have been willing to increase wages, many have been reluctant to adopt structural changes that benefit workers, such as stable scheduling.
Quantifying what makes a job “good” for workers is not straightforward, but recent research has identified the key elements that contribute to job quality. The first attempt to comprehensively measure job quality was in 2019, and found that less than half of American workers were in good jobs. More recently, the Families & Workers Fund, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Labor, set out to fill in long-standing data gaps by measuring the core elements of a quality job.
At Results for America, through our Good Jobs & Equity Project and Workforce Fellowship, we see this good jobs movement catching hold across the country. While governments have historically left creating and structuring jobs to the private sector, many leaders are beginning to look for ways to lift wages, improve benefits and working conditions, provide stable schedules, and ensure that workers have voice, dignity and purpose. They are also finding ways to encourage recipients of government dollars to meet job quality and equity standards in existing and new jobs.
Positioning the public workforce system to address job quality also requires a shift in thinking. Workforce entities want to expand their impact from helping people get jobs to helping them get good jobs. This is no small task. Like many federally-funded programs, workforce agencies can be hamstrung by funding restrictions and reductions, bureaucratic realities, and heavily regulated lists of cans and can’ts.
Grounded in the research on worker priorities and with input from national experts, Results for America created a Job Quality Playbook to help government leaders and workforce professionals take steps — big and small — to improve the quality of jobs in their communities.
The Job Quality Playbook identifies eight principles of a quality job:
- learning and development,
- safety and security,
- voice and representation,
- environment and culture, and
- purpose and meaning
While not every job will excel in all eight principles, they provide a shared definition for understanding and measuring job quality and can be used to inspire action.
What might this action look like?
Results for America has identified five unique levers that government leaders and workforce agencies can use to take achievable steps towards improving job quality.
- Procurement: Directly promote job quality and equity in government-funded organizations.
- Empowerment: Recognize historical and systemic inequities and give individuals a seat at the decision-making table.
- Policy: Set the tone for the agency by defining the processes, structures and requirements that influence job quality and equity outcomes.
- HR Practices: “Walk the talk” on job quality and equity.
- Education and Enforcement: Educating businesses about job quality protections and contract requirements related to procurement policies, incentive programs, wage subsidy programs and other policies, and enforcing these standards within the local jurisdiction.
Over the coming weeks we will be writing a series of blogs highlighting government and workforce agency efforts nationwide to create quality jobs. Each blog will focus on one of the five levers for improving job quality. The next blog will address empowerment.