What Makes a Good Job Good?

The United States is producing a lot of jobs, but how many are “good” jobs? That’s hard to know because of a lack of data and because there’s no agreed-upon definition of what makes a job good or bad.

A new project called the Job Quality Measurement Initiative aims to fix those problems and fill a big hole in our understanding of the labor market. I got an early look at the project this week and so I’m sharing what I learned with you.

The U.S. Department of Labor began the initiative in cooperation with several nonprofits, including the Families and Workers Fund, the Omidyar Network, the Lumina Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

“We’re constantly measuring the number of jobs in the U.S. economy, but the quality of the jobs has gone largely unmeasured,” Rachel Korberg, executive director and a co-founder of the Families and Workers Fund, told me in an interview.

If quantity of jobs were all that mattered, workers would be in heaven right now. After spiking in 2020 during the pandemic recession, the U.S. unemployment rate has plunged, reaching 3.6 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s tied with a couple of months right before the pandemic for the lowest jobless rate since the 1960s. There were nearly 11.3 million job openings in the United States at the end of February, more than triple the number a decade earlier, B.L.S. data show.

However, the strong demand for labor over the past several years has not translated into meaningful pay gains. While average hourly earnings for all employees on private, nonfarm payrolls rose to $31.73 in March, up 5.6 percent over the past 12 months, that wasn’t even enough to keep up with consumer prices, which shot up 8.5 percent over the same period. And that’s just in the past year. “It is no longer news that most U.S. workers, especially those without college degrees, saw wages stagnate over the past four decades,” Erica Groshen of Cornell and Harry Holzer of Georgetown wrote last year.

Many workers lack leverage to demand higher pay. They’re less likely to belong to labor unions than in the past, especially in the private sector. Some don’t understand their options, while others are undocumented and thus at the mercy of their employers. I spoke with Joel Salazar, 34, an undocumented 2018 immigrant from Venezuela who until recently traveled the country cleaning up after disasters such as hurricanes and fires. He described a life of sleeping in cars in mall parking lots, coping with downed electrical wires and toxic chemicals without adequate protection and being cheated of wages by employers and harassed by the police.

Salazar saw his job as good in one key respect, though: “People thank us for rebuilding their communities,” he said in Spanish. “There is a pride.” (He is now a field organizer for an organization called Resilience Force that helps disaster workers such as he was.)

That gets to a larger point. What’s perceived as a bad job by one person might be a great one to another. Forester. Bartender. Pet groomer. President of the United States (!). To get around the differences in preferences, the measurement initiative is working with the Aspen Institute to choose criteria that just about everyone would agree are important. The criteria, which will be announced in June, are likely to revolve around economic stability and mobility, and what Korberg calls “equity, respect and voice.”

People can disagree even over those basic criteria. How would you rate a job that pays well but offers poor mobility or equity? A LinkedIn member survey released this month found that a third of workers would exchange a small cut in pay for more enjoyable work, and a quarter would do so in exchange for “a stronger chance to grow in the role,” among other hypothetical options — but 46 percent would not give up pay for anything.

Labor economists talk about two kinds of employers. Some take the high road, designing jobs that are varied and interesting, require lots of training and are well paid. Others take the low road, dumbing down jobs so that anyone can do them and consequently paying lower wages. What low-road employers save in pay is offset by higher costs for supervision and rapid turnover. “Companies taking those two different approaches can coexist in the same industry. So it is a choice,” Groshen of Cornell told me.

Not all of the “high road” companies are white-collar operations. Maureen Conway, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s economic opportunities program, favorably cites QuikTrip Corp., a privately held company based in Tulsa, Okla., that has more than 24,000 employees in more than 900 locations, where they sell food and gasoline. QuikTrip designs “stable jobs, more interesting jobs,” Conway said. Employees are taught to interact with customers and track inventory. The extra training takes time. “There’s a significant on-boarding process,” she said. “There’s job shadowing for a couple of weeks.”

Most people would consider the high-training, high-pay job to be better than the low-training, low-pay job. But not all. Some people just need quick money to pay the bills and may lack the inclination, time or ability for a “high road” job. I got an example of that when I spoke with David Zamir, founder and C.E.O. of Nana Academy, a company that trains people in appliance repair at no cost and then sends them out on jobs. Zamir said Nana graduates who learn the most complicated repair jobs can make $160,000 a year or more. But “15 percent want simple and easy,” he said. “They want in and out.” And that’s fine, he said.

You might think it stands to reason that jobs would improve when workers are in greater demand, but in at least one respect it’s just the opposite, according to research by Brad Hershbein, a senior economist and deputy director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. When companies are desperate to fill openings, they will lower their hiring standards, which may require them to simplify tasks, he said. That would be a low-road approach. Conversely, when unemployment is high, they will hire only the most highly skilled applicants, giving them the option to make jobs more complex — a high-road strategy. (Whether they actually properly pay people for the more complex work is harder to answer.)

Hershbein told me that the average quality of new jobs has risen over the past 15 or so years in a ratchet pattern: increasing in periods of high unemployment and not going all the way back in periods of low unemployment. He has built an index that finds more hiring in high-wage occupations than in low-wage occupations. That’s happening even in industries that have reputations for low pay, he said: “In leisure and hospitality, it’s not just wait staff and cooks. You have market analysis — where should I open a restaurant? — and consultants on décor and food.”

The Job Quality Measurement Initiative plans to release its findings in September. Korberg said she would love to see an index of job quality included in the monthly jobs report. On the other hand, the B.L.S. has a tight budget — Groshen, commissioner of the agency from 2013 to 2017, said it hasn’t conducted a survey of employer-provided training since 1995. She also notes that some aspects of job quality, such as upward mobility, can be calculated only in retrospect. (You can’t tell if people can move up until they have actually done so, which takes years.)

Initiatives to measure job quality are long overdue. Think about it: Jobs are as plentiful as they’ve ever been, but who’s feeling wonderful about the condition of American workers?

The readers write

Thank you for writing your April 18 newsletter on long Covid. People need to be aware of the risks of pushing themselves when they have long Covid or myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. I have had ME/CFS for 33 long years. Pacing is important in getting through the days. You said it right. If we don’t pace, we run the risk of being permanently disabled. We may be permanently disabled anyway, but we must be educated to do what we can, and our employers can support us in the ways you have mentioned.

Sandhya King

Los Altos, Calif.

Quote of the day

“Our objective should be to achieve free but secure trade. We cannot allow countries to use their market position in key raw materials, technologies or products to have the power to disrupt our economy or exercise unwanted geopolitical leverage.”
— Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in prepared remarks for delivery on April 13, 2022

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