Transitional Jobs Programs Need to Prioritize Job Quality

By Chris Warland, Associate Director for Field Building, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Photo via San Jacinto College.

Photo via San Jacinto College.

Job quality for entry-level workers in the US is pretty dismal. The minimum wage is historically very low when adjusted for inflation, wage theft and other violations of wage and hour laws are commonplace, and employers often limit workers to part-time status or misclassify them as independent contractors in order to avoid offering benefits or paying overtime. New scheduling software allows employers to assign workers for short, unpredictable shifts in a way that maximizes profit but makes it difficult to plan transportation, arrange for childcare, or work more than one job (which is often necessary when you’re limited to part-time work).

We know that just getting a job is often not enough to allow an individual or family to escape poverty in America. There are millions of “working poor” Americans for whom the promise of hard work as a means to stability and security has not materialized. Over sixty-five percent of households living in poverty contain at least one working adult.

If transitional jobs programs succeed only in moving job seekers from chronic unemployment into low-wage, low-quality jobs, we have failed. We are merely adding to the numbers of the “working poor”—and we can do better.

One way to help improve the prospects of transitional jobs participants is to provide work experience that is connected to occupation- or sector-specific training. By coordinating with training providers that deliver the skills that employers in high-demand sectors need, while using transitional work to stabilize individuals and provide immediate earned income, transitional jobs providers can help low-income job seekers access career paths that lead to higher earnings, benefits, and full-time work. If the work experience is in the same industry as the training, so much the better.

However, sector training programs typically have basic skills requirements that many transitional jobs participants don’t meet—often requiring that candidates test at a sixth-grade level in reading and math. TJ programs can address these basic skills needs by offering GED and adult basic education courses, or partnering with an organization that does. Adult basic skills instruction that is contextualized to the workplace is especially promising. It is also important to connect transitional jobs with career pathways in growing sectors so that chronically unemployed individuals have access to opportunities for advancement.

Training is only part of the picture, though. No matter how much training we provide, many of the jobs available to transitional jobs program graduates will necessarily be entry-level jobs, will likely be in the service sector, and will require fewer skills and less prior work experience—jobs in industries like retail, foodservice, building maintenance, and caregiving. These are jobs that are essential to the economy, resistant to outsourcing overseas, and likely to grow in number in the coming years. But these jobs also typically pay poorly, are often only part-time, offer too few opportunities to advance, and frequently lack health insurance, paid time off, and other essential benefits.

We need to become advocates for improving the quality of the jobs that our participants can access—for turning the “bad” jobs into good jobs. That includes advocating for: a higher minimum wage, holding employers accountable for wage theft and other violations, limiting unpredictable part-time scheduling, access to affordable health insurance, access to sick time and paid time off, and easier paths to collective bargaining. In the short term it means seeking out employer partners that treat employees well, and turning down potential employer partners if the positions they offer job seekers are low-wage, low-quality jobs.

We know that when employers take the “high road” and provide quality jobs for their workers, they can profit through higher customer satisfaction, increased productivity, and reduced turnover. Transitional jobs programs should seek out employer partners that view workers as assets instead of costs, and educate employers about the value that can be gained by paying workers more and treating them better. Moreover, programs and their stakeholders should, whenever possible, act as advocates for improving the job quality of all workers.

America was built on the belief that hard work pays off. Respect for work and workers is a primary American value. As professionals charged with helping the chronically unemployed get back to work, we have a responsibility to ensure that, once working, they can meet their basic needs, advance in their jobs, and attain the security and prosperity that we all desire for our families.

Like what you read?
Learn more about the Schedules That Work Act.
See how the research shows that companies can offer low prices and good jobs to their employees.
Read about how contextualized adult education can help TJ program participants get on-track for career pathways. 

  

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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