Obama and jobs — focus on quality, not just numbers

MIT Sloan Prof. Paul Osterman

President Obama’s job plan has triggered lots of talk if not action. With the economy struggling, any conversation about job creation is good news. But from the President on down, we sometimes pay too much attention to the number of jobs being produced and not nearly enough attention to the quality of those jobs.

In Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone (Russell Sage Foundation), a book co-authored by me and Beth Shulman being released this month, we document how a very large percentage of American adults today work in jobs that pay at levels below what is needed for a decent standard of living.

The main focus of our book is to show how bad jobs can be made into good ones. We show that education is a necessary but not sufficient element in the solution, that the persistence of low wage work cannot be laid at the door of immigration, and that it is possible to improve job quality without negatively impacting economic growth.

We don’t seek to portray employers as evil. We recognize that companies today are under intense competitive pressures.  The challenge is to help them to improve their employment practices, to change how they design jobs and compensate them. That means helping them create career ladders, so that in a hospital, for example, a kitchen worker can be trained to become a health care technician.

Government must create a level playing field to enable firms to take such actions. That includes stronger and better enforced wage and other labor standards. At the same time, wage enforcement and other regulations need to be sensible and not overwhelm firms with paper work. We also need labor law and other reforms to create an environment for more workers to be represented by unions. When unions are present, the rate of low wage work goes down.   Finally,  we discuss in detail programs that work with firms to enable them to improve their employee’s productivity in ways that underwrite the costs of higher wages.

I know that some of our positions go against today’s political wind. But I also know that the public is willing to support policies to strengthen worker wages — since 2006, six states, including conservative ones such as Montana and Arizona, have passed ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage.

We need real steps to change many of our current policies. And not just for today’s low-wage workers. After all, many people losing their jobs now will fall down into lower wage work. To avoid such a fate for both those workers and our economy, we need political leadership to translate more of this public sentiment into concrete action.

Paul Osterman, NTU Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is the co-author, with the late Beth Shulman, of Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone.

Read more:   NY Times Opinion, NPR On PointNY Times Economix, Washington Post Political Bookworm, The Atlantic Wire  

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