We should stop blaming workers for the Great Resignation–and start looking at the jobs they’re leaving

We are merely moving workers around in a labor market overflowing with low-wage jobs.

Workers with low-quality jobs endure financial stress, ill health, and social stigma. The effect on the purchasing power of a large segment of consumers also limits economic growth. Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

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Two years into the pandemic, anxieties about the labor market persist. America is facing a labor crisis–and there is a multitude of opinions as to the cause: Is it employee burnout or difficulty stemming from unreliable child care?

These theories place the onus on the workers and focus our handwringing on those leaving the workforce and their choices or circumstances. Why won’t they work harder? Why are they still unemployed despite the many available positions out there?

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Two years into the pandemic, anxieties about the labor market persist. America is facing a labor crisis–and there is a multitude of opinions as to the cause: Is it employee burnout or difficulty stemming from unreliable child care?

These theories place the onus on the workers and focus our handwringing on those leaving the workforce and their choices or circumstances. Why won’t they work harder? Why are they still unemployed despite the many available positions out there?

If we want to really make a difference in poverty and related issues like hunger, homelessness, and child welfare, we need to stop trying to fix people and start fixing work. If we can fix work, the people will take care of themselves. 

So, the better question is: Why does no one want this job or to work in this sector?

Employers having the most trouble filling open positions are overwhelmingly offering poor-quality jobs.

The highest quit rates are in accommodation and food services–an industry dominated by low wages, few benefits, and little employment security or stability.

However, pay is not the only determinant of job quality. Workers are looking for jobs where their work is valued and respected, jobs that offer growth opportunities, and the chance to build financial security.

Workers with low-quality jobs endure financial stress, ill health, and social stigma. The effects don’t stop there: Low-wage jobs limit the growth of the economy by reducing the purchasing power of a large segment of consumers—disproportionately consisting of women, immigrants, and workers of color. Additionally, company performance is impacted by the low commitment and engagement that low-quality jobs inspire in their workers.

Given the costs of poor-quality jobs to workers, families, companies, and the economy overall, we desperately need strategies aimed at improving job quality, not only quantity.

For too long, social service providers, food banks, homeless services, and job training organizations have sought ways to help individual workers find better jobs. They have rarely seen their role as questioning why there are so many bad jobs in the first place or coming up with ideas about how those jobs can be better and benefit more people.

For example, a non-profit initiative with a goal of reducing poverty among single mothers that provides a mix of poverty alleviation services for a select group of women will often help them connect to higher-quality employment.

For such a program, a success story might be helping a single mom leave a low-wage, part-time job in retail and get a stable, full-time, full benefits job with the local transportation authority. It is heartwarming to see the difference that a good job makes for this person’s self-esteem and for the welfare of the family.

The problem is, unseen by the facilitators of the initiative or the government program funding it, a different single mother takes a part-time job in retail. So, even though we see a wonderful outcome for a specific individual, the problem of working poverty among single mothers is unchanged.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers found success by addressing the broader system that led to brutal farm working conditions, and they also had a seat at the table when negotiations with growers and buyers were taking place. Ultimately, the Coalition was able to raise wages and improve working conditions, encouraging growers to sell to large customers at a price sufficient to cover increased costs while benefiting the many over the few.

True success looks like system-wide changes in the form of business practice changes, including compensation and other structures. An example of this is Marlin Steel Wire Products in Baltimore, which increased annual sales seven times over 15 years by investing in employee training and compensation and directly incentivizing improvements in quality.

Because of job quality improvements, these businesses are no longer relying on a labor force that can’t support themselves on their earnings. Optimax is another manufacturer that operates with a good labor strategy. To ensure the company continues to offer good jobs in the future, the founders recently transitioned to an employee ownership trust, so that a change of ownership won’t change the company’s approach to including workers in the company’s success. Business practice changes are also possible in businesses like healthcare, retail, and more.  

Workers cannot afford to accept anything less. Merely moving workers around in a labor market overflowing with poverty wages isn’t enough. We must break the cycle of low-wage, low-reward jobs that harm workers, their families, and our economy as a whole.

Maureen Conway serves as vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of the Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP)

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