America has a jobs problem — there aren’t enough good ones

In 2020, during a global pandemic, America’s workforce showed up and delivered. Essential workers — in health care, early childhood education, food production and distribution, advanced manufacturing, public transportation and delivery — were recognized as just that, essential. They risked their health and safety heading into work each day, while many other workers were able to isolate at home, telecommute and maintain earnings.

Many other workers faced layoffs and furloughs, adding to the existing financial burden of jobs without routine benefits such as paid sick leave or employer-provided health insurance. Both essential workers and those who lost their livelihoods overnight have, for far too long, had to navigate unsafe, even demeaning workplaces, with limited voice and representation.

The reality is that about half of America’s working population earns less than a living wage. It is past time to update federal policy and support all of our workforce in a way that matches its skills, talents and contributions to America’s success.

In the rebuilding year ahead, Americans need and deserve better jobs. Expanding the number of good jobs, and improving the quality of existing ones, must be an essential goal of the Biden administration.

Too little attention has been paid to the deteriorating wages and working conditions that have eroded economic stability and opportunity for a growing number of Americans. Some view low-wage jobs as an important entry point into the labor market, and one that enables hard-working people to advance quickly.

The research is clear. The size of the low-wage workforce and limited mobility in the labor market means that relatively few people are upwardly mobile. 

While there is no single, comprehensive definition of a “good” job, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, the Aspen Institute, Gallup, the Urban Institute, and others have defined job quality not just based on pay and benefits, but also on working conditions, workplace culture, job design, supportive work environments, skill development and career advancement.

Improving job quality requires employers, social sector leaders, worker organizations and many others to step up to the plate.

Policymakers can be the deciding factor. Forward-looking policies can establish incentives for innovation, invest in infrastructure and public goods, and uphold societal values about the dignity of work.

The Biden administration has an opportunity to lay the foundation for a comprehensive national strategy that leverages a wide range of administrative, regulatory and legislative authorities to improve the quality of jobs for millions of Americans. There are three primary ways we can and should go about doing this:

  • First, by setting job quality as an explicit goal;
  • Second, by improving job quality through federal operations; and
  • Third, by creating executive, legislative, and regulatory job quality directives. 

Job quality should be central in all U.S. recovery efforts. An interagency council and public commission on job quality and equity should be created along with a data framework and dashboard for measuring success. This administration should use the communication and convening power of the White House to focus on the critical role of businesses investing in job quality and equity.

The federal government must lead by example. This means model investing in job quality and equity across all federal agencies, and using its role as a purchaser of goods and services to incentivize the creation of good jobs. New federal investments in community-based infrastructure and the clean energy economy must ensure that good jobs are being created.

The administration should continue to pursue legislative and executive actions to raise wages and expand benefits, worker protections and other national standards, particularly in sectors where government plays a significant role — including health care, early child care and education. The federal government also should be supporting innovation at the state and local levels and providing technical assistance to small and medium-sized employers to invest in their work and equity-related policies and practices. And finally, government investments in business and workforce development programs should focus on improving job quality and equity.

It is time to do better for essential workers and for the millions of underemployed who are working several jobs to make ends meet. Wage and employment gaps hold back the entire economy. Rising wages leads to more consumer spending, a key driver of economic growth and job creation.

Work is a human endeavor, shaped by laws people choose to enact, business decisions people make, individual actions people decide to take, and values society shares. Improving job quality is not an unreasonable goal — it is an essential one.

Amanda Cage is president and CEO of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. Maureen Conway is vice president and executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program, The Aspen Institute. Jeannine LaPrad is senior fellow, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce. Sarah Miller is a senior adviser with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. The authors are members of the Better Employment and Training Strategies Task Force. The views expressed here are the authors’ and not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or the Federal Reserve System.

Tags essential workers Living wage underemployed Unemployment

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