At the very time when people are thankful to have any job, it seems a bit perverse to be talking about ‘good jobs’. But in a remarkably interesting one-day conference yesterday, I was convinced that this is exactly the time that we should be talking about it – a time of economic fluctuations, impending job intensification, and (at least the potential of) radical change in the way that we think about our economies. The question is, though, just what can we do to make bad jobs better?
Before the answers, the questions
While the session was focused on practical policy steps to improve the quality of work, the first question to be asked is, what is a bad job anyway? From earlier seminars we’d recognised the complexity of this, but in practice we bounced between talking about low-wage work – work that’s so badly paid that it’s difficult to avoid poverty (particularly if you’ve got a family) – and jobs that are bad in a wider sense (that make you sick, miserable, and don’t lead anywhere). From a UK perspective, it’s particularly worrying that median wages flatlined 2003-2008 before the recession, as shown in the Resolution Foundation’s work – disposable income fell in every UK region outside London in this period.
Tess Lanning & Kayte Lawton from ippr – the Institute of Public Policy Research, one of the most important left-wing think-tanks in the UK – added a further dimension to this though: whether we get paid what we deserve. Based on some original research, they argued that people feel there’s an imbalance between how hard people work and the rewards they get from it; high earners often work hard for their money, but so do people on low wages. Moreover, many of us don’t really know exactly what our senior managers do to get all their money (I certainly don’t). So a good job isn’t one that just pays well, but that pays fairly.
Concrete actions to get better jobs
So is there anything we can do to get better jobs, or is this just a reflection of the ‘global auction’ for good work that I’ve talked about on the blog before (based on Brown et al’s work)? Well, Paul Osterman has just launched his new book Good Jobs America (a Russell Sage Foundation book), and described a set of things that could make a difference – if there was the will to implement them.
- Firstly, we need to have a base of full employment and great education policies – but despite the hopes for both of these, they’re just not enough on their own.
- Secondly, we need pressure on firms to make jobs good. This pressure comes about partly through labour market standards – not just a high minimum wage but other pressures like living wage campaigns, Community Benefit Agreements that give planning permission in return for retail centres providing living wages, and tax incentives conditional on living wages. (James Plunkett from the Resolution Foundation talked about the ‘transformative potential’ of wage standards in changing how firms organise work). It also happens through ‘voice’, for which read ‘worker power’, whether through unions, community groups, or the ‘workers centres’ that sprouted up to help stop migrant workers being exploited. As Osterman said, unions are incredibly powerful here – it’s the main reason why unionised Las Vegas hotel cleaners earn $14-15/hr while non-unionised Orlando cleaners earn $9-10 – but given the widespread decline of unions, we should recognise the other forms of worker voice.
- Third, we need help for firms to create better jobs, and routes from bad jobs to good jobs. By ‘help’, Osterman was talking about intermediaries and sectoral programmes that work with both clients and employers, almost providing a ‘surrogate HR’ function. Through training, support and contacts, these organisations can build internal labour markets for people to climb up, or even change industry structures by collecting subcontractors into employers. While these have been shown to work, the major challenges are doing this on a big enough scale to dent the American labour market, getting sustainable funding for these intermediaries (particularly from the state), and getting employers on-board when they have a myriad of other daily pressures to deal with.
(See also his interview the other week in the NYTimes).
What’s striking about this – and indeed, about the contributions from everyone present, whether from the OECD, academia, or the UK Commission for Employment and Skills – is that there’s a recognition that it’s no longer enough to rely on education, to rely on supplying ever-greater numbers of higher-skilled workers, to create better jobs. Alongside this, we need to think about the demand for skills – the way that employers use the skills of their workers. This is at the centre of Osterman’s proposals, while Francesca Froy from the OECD gave extensive examples of how local areas across the high-income world have tried to balance skills supply and demand, based around the involvement of multiple stakeholders and a long-term approach.
So will we see better jobs?
The challenges in all of this are clear to see. For companies that think the best way of making a profit is to pay poorly-qualified workers badly, it’s difficult to change their entire way of organising work – and it’s difficult to persuade governments to put the efforts and resources into incentivising real change.
But perhaps surprisingly, there was a real sense that we could change bad jobs if we wanted to. And if some of the more dramatic steps are not politically pragmatic in the short-term, there was a feeling that what is needed is action – organising, persuasion, energy, and optimism. The question is not, ‘are there levers that we can pull to make bad jobs better?’ – for this is a question that we know the answer to. Instead, the question is ‘how do we engage actively in the world in order to make these things happen?’ – and this meeting felt like a step in that direction.
[Presentations + short video interviews from the session will be going up at the making bad jobs better website in the next few days].