Welcome to the reemployment seminar; you are all required to be in this seminar because the unemployment office thinks you will have a really hard time finding a job in this economy.”
Imagine hearing those words right after you were laid off in one of the US’s deepest recessions. Well that is exactly what WOW’s Senior Scholar, Mary Gatta, heard when she went undercover as an unemployed worker in an American Jobs Center (formerly known as One Stop Centers) at the height of the recent recession. Mary chronicles her experiences as an undercover waitress and adjunct professor in her new book, All I Want is A Job: Unemployed Women Navigating the Public Workforce System, released this summer by Stanford University Press.
In the past week Mary has been on the road listening to job seekers and workforce professional’s in the field, and sharing the findings of her book. She spoke to Rutgers University sociology faculty and students; along with jobseekers at the Jersey Shore at a Jobs Help Center at the Middletown Township Public Library. She then headed up the New Jersey Turnpike to the New Jersey Institute of Technology to speak at an UpskillNJ career fair—a program that offers specialized information technology and science training to unemployed professionals and veterans in New Jersey to help them upgrade their skills to compete jobs. And then continued on 95 North to Jobs for the Future to meet with workforce officials, career services professionals, and researchers. Both audiences —job seekers and workforce development professionals—while at different points in their work lives–expressed concern for their futures. As the job market may be improving, there is a general anxiety not only that there are just not enough jobs, but that the jobs that are available do not offer pathways to economic security.
And the worries that workers expressed to Mary at her New Jersey talks this week, are backed up by the data. Although we are officially no longer in a recession, many American workers and their families are struggling to secure, and especially jobs that offer opportunities for economic security. Paul Krugman’s recent New York Times piece paints a stark picture for workers today, who continue to find themselves out of work. There are still almost 3 million Americans who have been out of work for more than six months, which is the usual maximum duration of unemployment insurance. This is a number that is three times the pre-recession total. And coupled with long-term unemployment is that the extended benefits have been eliminated — and in some states the length of benefits has been cut even further. And in this economic recovery, men continue to outpace women in job gains—with the unemployment rate falling half as quickly for women than for men.
And as Mary stresses in her book– our labor market is changing. In fact the backstory has been that the employment gains during the recovery have been highest in low-wage occupations. Jobs such as retail sales, food preparation, waiters and waitresses, and personal and home care aides grew 2.7 times as fast as mid-wage and higher-wage occupations. Overall, employment has grown by 8.7 percent in low-wage occupations compared with only 6.6 percent in high wage occupations, and mid-wage occupations have actually fallen by 7.3 percent. This uneven jobs recovery means that the “good job” deficit is greater than it was during the early 2000s.
Further, the proliferation of low-wage work is compounded by decades of wage stagnation. Over the thirty years, the median wage for households has remained nearly the same. Indeed, the past decade actually saw a decrease in the inflation-adjusted average income for households as available wages and compensation for most workers remains far below what would be expected given productivity gains and what families require to keep up with increases in the cost of health care, housing, and education.
So if the jobs that are projected to grow are low quality jobs, there needs to be a concerted effort to improve these jobs. Workforce development policy is certainly an important and critical part of this response, but for it to be an effective policy it cannot exist on its own. For this to occur then there needs to be collaboration between both private sector changes and public sector supports. For example, we need to highlight high-road management practices—practices that engage front-line workers in problem-solving and decision-making and provide them with the training and skills to do this well — to improve the quality of service jobs and the quality of services provided. And workers need benefits and supports to move toward economic security. The absence of comprehensive social insurance or governmental protections results in a vastly unequal labor market, in which workers who fill low-wage jobs face many compounding issues. Millions of Americans who work full-time cannot pay their basic living expenses let alone have enough money to make investments in their future. These harsh realities demonstrate the need for reinforcing and expanding the safety net for working families facing hard times and supporting programs and policies that contribute to moving families to economic security.