Spotlight Exclusives

The Time is Now for Action on Job Quality

Maureen Conway and Mark G. Popovich, the Aspen Institute Maureen Conway and Mark G. Popovich, the Aspen Institute, posted on

To paraphrase the song, there is something happening here. What it is, is exactly clear. Americans across the country, bridging partisan affiliation and from rural and urban communities alike, want to use public policy to boost wages in particular for the working poor and near poor.

On November 6, voters in two states voted by overwhelming margins to raise their minimum wages. Considered conservative on most social/economic issues, Arkansas and Missouri joined 18 other states that in January of this year also increased their minimum wage—many the result of referenda adopted by wide margins in prior years.

Wages and earnings aren’t the only aspect of job quality, but they are certainly one key, and we can’t begin to restore the dignity of work unless we also restore the decency of a paycheck. The current situation of stagnant wages and rising inequality is the result of choices made over the decades by government, businesses, individuals, and communities. But this also means we can make different choices moving forward and make quality jobs – across race, gender, and geography – a priority.

Encouragingly, communities of stakeholders across the country are working to make quality jobs a central priority. In the last year, we’ve had the opportunity to work with an impressive group of these leaders as part of the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program’s Job Quality Fellowship. The first cohort launched with 16 impressive leaders in July 2017 and completed their work in August of this year. We recently convened the second cohort of 17 fellows, which we announced in September, for their first working session.

These fellows are using a variety of different approaches to improve jobs across the country. From financing small businesses, to developing training and placement programs, to supporting employee ownership programs, creating quality jobs takes many forms. These innovative approaches are creating changes in local communities and spreading across the country to change the way businesses operate.

These fellows aren’t just impressive in the work that they are currently doing, but even more so in their drive to do more. Working with these two groups, we see three major areas where these leaders are already making their mark on the field, and how they can lead the future of job quality.

Building a new narrative around job quality: Fellows are helping businesses and their communities understand that quality jobs are good for everyone. As the first cohort of fellows described in their statement of purpose, good jobs can “enable workers to thrive, companies to be productive and profitable, and communities to benefit from healthy, sustainable outcomes.” Fellow Rick Plympton is setting an example with his company Optimax, a precision optics manufacturer that invests in training for its employees and gives 25 percent of its profits to employees at the end of each month.

Leveraging the power of government: Fellows have expanded their impact by working directly with government to use its convening and buying power to change how business is done. Jose Corona in the mayor’s office in Oakland is working across city departments and directly with businesses to connect residents to good jobs. From outside the government, Linda Nguyen at Jobs to Move America is working both at the national and local level to ensure that infrastructure procurement policies take job quality into account and create opportunity for groups that face barriers to employment.

Creating a network of leaders: One of the goals of the fellowship is to facilitate learning across disciplines, and these efforts are already leading to collaboration. In Boston, fellows J.D. LaRock and Anjalia Sakaria are working on a partnership between the Commonwealth Corporation and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The partnership will to use the Fed’s analytical expertise and business relationships to better understand how the Commonwealth Corporation can use policy and practice to improve workforce development efforts and provide better services to businesses. In the second cohort, we’re seeing fellows find new ways for their work to connect, such as lending organizations supporting new employee ownership work, or data sharing to help businesses better understand their workers’ financial lives.

We’re excited to see what these fellows are able to achieve over the course of their fellowship and beyond. Through their work, they are issuing a clear call for a new vision for work, and how communities and businesses should operate to expand opportunity for all. And they have practical, tested, and proven approaches that are generating results that matter.

Maureen Conway serves as Vice President for Policy Programs at the Aspen Institute and as Executive Director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program. Mark G. Popovich is Director of the Institute’s Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative, a part of the Economic Opportunities Program, and co-leader of the Job Quality Fellowship program.

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