12/05/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Improving Low-Wage Work

In recent weeks, we've seen many firsts when it comes to the battle for better paying jobs, everything from national protests outside of Walmarts during Black Friday, to fast food employees in New York City walking off the job demanding better pay.

Despite the clear national interest, low-wage jobs were an important topic missing from the long election season's discourse.

"I can't recall any mention of poverty, which I think is shameful," said Elliot Gerson, The Aspen Institute's Executive Vice President of Policy and Public Programs, last month during the organization's discussion series "Reinventing Low-Wage Work: Ideas that Can Work for Employees, Employers and the Economy."

Yes there was a lot of talk about jobs, Gerson acknowledged, but he added, no one was "drilling down to an understanding of the reality of the workplace for so many millions of Americans, particularly when you consider so much of the American ethos -- all you need to do is work hard, and if you do, you are assured a place in the middle class."

Aspen's Workforce Strategy Initiative launched the series this year to foster dialogue around creating better low-paying jobs, and last Wednesday the group held a talk at its Washington headquarters titled "From Jobs to Job Quality: Ideas for Improving Low-Wage Work," with three experts in this area -- Ellen Galinsky, co founder of the Families and Work Institute (FWI); Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering, and Javier Morillo-Alicea, President of the Service Employees International Union Local 26.

In order to drill down and figure out how to improve low-wage work, Gerson asked the three panelists at the session what makes a quality job, one that can improve low-wage employees economic status and lifestyle.

"We look at what are the characteristics of a job that are related to things that matter to employers, like retention, engagement, and job satisfaction; and what are things that matter to employees, well being and health," explained Galinsky, who released the Institute's new low-income report titled "Low-Income Workforce Challenge: Not Just 'Job,' 'Good Job'" at the event.

Wages are also an important consideration, stressed Morillo-Alicea. "If someone is working 40 hours a week at what ever job, that person shouldn't work in poverty," he said. Low-wage workers, he continued, should have jobs that provide a "life of dignity. That sounds simple but it's far from being a reality."

Cascade Engineering's Keller pointed out that often times it's business realities that drive decisions on pay.

"In some respects the marketplace drives a lot of our thinking in terms of how we're able to pay our employees, on the other hand we can do a lot with culture," he explained.

About one third of Cascade Engineering's employees are directly involved in manufacturing while the rest are indirectly involved, he added, and that provides an opening for those who want to climb the ladder.

"We like to think in terms of people coming into our organization and having career opportunities in our organization not just a job," he said.

After his company put in a program to help guide welfare recipients on the job, the monthly retention rate for those employees went from about 45 percent to 97 percent. "How do we employ people and retain them that are coming from poverty? We learned a whole system of support is needed for that to happen effectively," he noted. "When you move from welfare to full time, there are lots of barriers, and new things you have to learn."

In the end, he added, it's a win win for everyone. His strategy: "Finding something good to do and figuring out how to make it good business."

It's all about creating quality jobs and what Galinsky calls an "effective workplace."

How do you create such a workplace for lower-wage employees? "Having some say in how to do your job is important," she explained, "and economic security is critical."

And providing learning opportunities on the job, or access to education, also help low-wage employees, she continued. As can supportive supervisors and coworkers. "It's the relationships stupid that matter most," she quipped.

Another big benefit is workplace flexibility, she noted, but not flexibility that only benefits employers. "People are stuck in part-time ghettos," she said, with the majority wanting more hours, based on the Institute's new research.

Flexibility should benefit both employer and employees, and don't have to just include things like telecommuting, but provide benefits such as time off for illness, or the ability to reduce or expand hours worked depending on work-life needs, said Galinsky, who debuted a host of key papers about the low-wage workforce during the Aspen event:

  • The Low-Income Workforce Challenge report was funded by the Ford Foundation and includes seven factors for creating an effective workplace, including everything from economic security to workplace flexibility, and sheds new light on what constitutes good jobs at all levels of the employment pyramid. And two detailed low-income Workforce characteristics papers, also funding by Ford.
  • A list of employers from an array of industries that have created effective workplaces for lower-wage employees. The information comes from Families and Work Institute's "2013 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work," and includes a sampling of employer operations with low-wage employees that have won the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility this year.
  • The Supporting of Work Project (SWP) report. The project, a partnership Ford Foundation and Families and Work Institute, was designed to test the feasibility of a workplace strategy and its potential benefits for employees, community-based organizations and employers; and includes community-based groups across the nation and two national groups. The report provides an update on the key learnings of the project.

"When low income employees have access to this kind of good quality job, regardless of what ever industry they work in, they are much more likely to be engaged and have better health and mental health," Galinsky said. Effective and flexible workplaces, she added, "will begin to level the playing field in ways that are part of that American dream."