[Watch] Shifting Perspectives and Expectations on Employment


Fed Communities Staff

Woman working on an assembly line

Workers are key to the country’s economic success. Their voices are critical to conversations about understanding the labor market. Last year, the Federal Reserve held virtual focus groups across the US to find out how workers in lower-wage roles and job seekers with less than a bachelor’s degree experienced the labor market during the pandemic.

On August 10, 2023, the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta and Philadelphia hosted a Connecting Communities webinar, sharing insights from the Worker Voices 2023 report and how many workers are reshaping the workforce. The discussion addresses enhanced expectations of job quality and how workers are using skill development and self-investment to change their economic opportunities.

During the event, Federal Reserve Presidents Raphael Bostic from the Atlanta Fed and Patrick T. Harker from the Philadelphia Fed share their perspectives about this important topic. Keep reading for a full transcript.

Connecting Communities Shifting Perspectives and Expectations on Employment (video, 01:28:11).
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Whitney Felder

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Whitney Felder, communications specialist with Fed Communities. Welcome to Connecting Communities webinar, Shifting Perspectives and Expectations on Employment.

We are very excited to kick off today’s discussion. If you’re a returning Connecting Communities participant, welcome back. We’re happy to have you. If this is your first Connecting Communities Webinar, you are in for a treat.

We have a really great panel lined up for today’s discussion. Before we move into the content for today’s event, I would like to share a few housekeeping items. Today’s session is being recorded and will later be available for viewing on the Fed Communities’ website.

Views expressed during this session are those of the speakers and are intended for informational purposes. They do not necessarily represent the views of Fed Communities or the Federal Reserve System.

All microphones have been muted. Please use the Q&A feature throughout the session to submit your questions. We promise to get to as many of them as possible during the Q&A portion of our presentation today.

And finally, feel free to keep the conversation going and engage with us on social media using the #connectingcommunities and visit fedcommunities.org for a variety of CD articles, resources and data from across our Federal Reserve System.

Now I would like to turn it over to Raphael Bostic, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Raphael Bostic

Thank you you for joining us. I’m very sorry I can’t be with you live today, but please know that the pursuit of expanded economic ability and resilience broadly and this innovative project in particular are near and dear to me and important to our mission at the Atlanta Fed and the Federal Reserve System. The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate from Congress. The first is to foster stable prices, and this is why we have been working hard in recent months to reduce inflation, which has been too high and bring it back down to our target of 2%. The second Fed mandate is to foster maximum employment. And I actually think of it as fostering maximum sustainable employment because when people bounce in and out of employment, it is often extremely disruptive for them. If we meet our mandates well, everyone will have an opportunity for gainful employment in work that is consistent with their full potential.

The Worker Voices Project represents an important step in deepening our knowledge of the dynamics associated with achieving maximum sustainable employment at a crucial time. The varied and vast economic effects of the global pandemic remain with us. During this time, the labor market has undergone profound shifts that we are only beginning to fully appreciate now. For example, we don’t yet know how persistent the move to greater flexibility and remote work will be. We don’t know how much choice and power workers will have regarding flexibility over the longer term or whether labor demand will continue to exceed labor supply. And if so, for how long? We don’t know if worker attachment to the labor force will return to pre-pandemic norms or the degree to which automation will displace or fundamentally change jobs. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other labor market puzzles and many of these questions are especially critical to the fortunes of workers in lower wage positions, which are disproportionately filled by people of color and people without college degrees.

We at the Atlanta Fed and other researchers and policymakers gather plenty of data on labor markets, including statistics that can help us answer the sorts of questions that I just listed. But the data only tell us so much. They tell us what happened but not why it happened. And the data are by nature aggregate. They cover huge swaths of the economy and at times can lack important context that helps policymakers make better decisions. In short, to get a true sense of how real people are living in the economy, we have to talk to real people. And that’s what the Worker Voices Project is all about. Our team across the Fed system set out to devise a way to reach workers on a large scale. But before I talk more about Worker Voices, let me offer a little context about the importance of grassroots economic information.

This kind of on the ground intelligence can be quite valuable and enrich our understanding of economic conditions and can alert us to emerging trends before they show up in the aggregate data. It was our experience during the Great Recession when the Fed did not see trends and foreclosures coming that led the Atlanta Fed to establish the Regional Economic Information Network, which we call REIN. My predecessors formulated a team in all our six offices dedicated to meeting with business and community leaders to gather real-time information from the economic front lines. And I have to say, I found the insights gathered by our REIN team to be very helpful. And I take this kind of on the ground intelligence very seriously during my preparation as a member of the Federal Open Market Committee that sets the nation’s monetary policy.

The Fed is present in our communities in many other ways in addition to REIN. Community and economic development teams travel across the nation to advise and lend expertise data and research muscles to organizations serving low to middle income communities. At the Atlanta Fed, we have workforce development partnerships, programs to bolster community improvement projects, tools to help families and communities understand affordable housing challenges and partnerships to help low income workers embark on career ladders that lead to jobs paying family supporting wages. The Worker Voices Project is an important addition to the Federal Reserve System’s portfolio of research that helps advance the pursuit of our dual mandate. This project is among our first formalized systematic forms of outreach to a segment of the population that bore the brunt of the labor market upheaval brought on by the pandemic. As a quick reminder, 22 million jobs vanished in a two month span in 2020. And while a number of jobs returned, not all of them came back quickly and people who worked through shutdowns in frontline positions were uniquely affected.

Indeed, we’ve seen research showing the ways frontline essential workers and more generally workers in lower wage jobs have been affected by the head spinning changes in labor markets over the past three years. The Worker Voices Project contributes to this body of work. It firstly reminds us that the experiences of such workers can shape how they view their place in the labor market and can have profound implications for our ability to achieve maximum sustainable employment. What we heard from workers who lent their voices to this project will bring nuance and we hope a deeper understanding of the employment challenges these workers face and the complex and often agonizing considerations they weigh concerning their physical and mental health, the health of their families, their financial wellbeing, their dignity, and indeed their self-respect. Let me give you one quick example. The data have long told us the labor market is tight.

There are still many more job openings than people available to fill them. Nevertheless, Worker Voices Project participants told us of frustrations associated with submitting dozens of applications and still having trouble landing a job with decent pay and benefits or in some cases even getting an interview. We also learned more about the financial insecurity born of job instability and its very real effects on the health and wellbeing of families. On the other hand, participants in the project also told us they plan to be more discerning in future job searches and plan to seek agency and stability rather than simply settling for the first offer they get.

Worker Voices is one of many projects underway across the Federal Reserve System designed to deepen our understanding of the many micro economies that comprise our overall national macroeconomy. This grassroots brand of intelligence gathering is critical in our efforts to advance economic mobility and resilience, especially among those who face insecurity in the job market and ultimately move us closer to having an economy that works for everyone. You’ll hear much more in today’s seminar. Thank you for joining us. I encourage you to engage today and I hope you learn something new. Please stay in touch with us through the online and social media channels of Fed Communities and all 12 regional Federal Reserve banks. Have a great day.

Sarah Miller

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re really excited to share our initial findings from the Worker Voices research and deepen the top level detailed that Raphael just shared with us. I hope that this discussion sparks really interesting conversation, not just today but into the future. So I do want to start by thanking President Bostic for his remarks, which offer a really important frame to our conversation. He talks about the mandate of the Federal Reserve on maximum employment, but in his words, how he thinks about it is maximum sustainable employment, which will foster an economy that allows job seekers to meet their full potential. That principle was at the forefront and a guiding North Star for the way that we had approached this research and informed how we engaged with our workers and job seekers.

But before we dive in, let’s do some quick introductions. My name is Sarah Miller. I’m a principal advisor with the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity here at the Atlanta Fed. I’m excited to be here with the experts in the field that we have on deck, and I’m anxious to hear their discussion later today. But beyond that, I’m honored to be presenting this research with my co-lead on the project. So I’ll turn it over to you, Ashley.

Ashley Putnam

Thank you Sarah. And thank you again to President Bostic and to all of you who are joining us this afternoon for this really critical and important conversation. So before we dive into the data, I also want to say thank you. My name is Ashley Putnam and I direct the Economic Growth and Mobility Project at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. And I have the honor of co-leading this work with my colleague Sarah Miller, but with really colleagues across the Federal Reserve System. And I think you’ll hear today how this really was an effort from all 12 Federal Reserve banks as well as our colleagues at Fed Communities who are putting on this presentation today. And so I just want to start by saying thank you to everyone who has made this project possible. This is such critical and important work and we’re so excited to be here and be sharing this work with you. So I’ll turn it back over to Sarah to kick us off and tell us a little bit about how we got into this and why we did this research in the first place.

Sarah Miller

Absolutely. Yes, thank you Ashley. If we want to move ahead to the next slide. So how did this project come about? So way back in 2021, Ashley and I were having one of our many coffee talks that we have throughout the day. And this was at a time when the economy was rapidly growing jobs. We were just beginning to realize the significance of the labor shortage, what was going on, where were the workers, what was keeping them from returning to their jobs? This wasn’t just something that we were talking about, it was a part of the national narrative. So we took this conversation to our colleagues across the Federal Reserve System in addition to leading this work, this work actually was born out of a working group that Ashley and I co-lead around workforce development, which is comprised of many colleagues in each of the regional banks that focus on workforce development among many, many other areas of expertise.

And we raised this very conversation. What were they tracking? What were they hearing from partners? What did we understand about the divide between the labor demand and the labor supply? So ultimately, we know a lot about what businesses had to say. We know a lot from the data. We know what we are experiencing as consumers of goods and services in the economy as it started to open back up. But we knew far less about what workers had to say. Largely their voice and particularly the voice of those with less economic mobility was not as represented in the conversation. Where it was, it was predominantly through a filter of the perspectives of workers serving organizations that aim to serve these workers and job seekers every day. So we thought, “Let’s just talk to the workers directly.” So if we move on to the next slide, we can get a little bit into the nuts and bolts of what this project looked like.

So first what did we do, the why. As President Bostic noted, we are constantly tracking the conditions of the economy and the labor market to fulfill our maximum employment mandate. So we do this by tracking economic data. We talk with businesses at scale, but including the perspectives of workers and job seekers, a critical stakeholder in the economy had not been done at scale to that point in time. There’s a lot of conversations that happen in each of our individual districts, but as we wanted to understand from a macro perspective what was happening, these insights directly from workers and job seekers really helps us to better understand economic conditions and realities. Their perspectives just give us a more comprehensive view. So now Ashley and I both work in the community development function of the Federal Reserve, which has a core focus on low and moderate income individuals and families.

So when we talk about the who we wanted to reach out to, it was very important to us that we talk explicitly with workers and job seekers who don’t have the safety net of a college degree, who are disproportionately more likely to be in precarious, unstable, low wage work. They come in and out of the labor market more frequently and they certainly feel the shocks of economic stressors faster and harder than most. So in order to get to these workers, we leveraged our vast and impressive network of community-based organizations from coast to coast. We worked with all 12 regional banks to help us ultimately conduct 20 focus groups where we talked with 175 workers and job seekers. So while our conversations were conducted between the spring and the fall of 2022, it was important to us to understand how did workers experience employment at the onset of the pandemic and how were they weathering that through economic recovery.

Now, while you’re only hearing from myself and Ashley today, this was an incredible… it takes a village effort across the Federal Reserve System. So we would be remiss not to thank all of our system partners who offered support and contributed their expertise and experience in innumerable ways to this project. I feel personally incredibly lucky to work with such engaging, energetic and smart and caring colleagues. I had also like to thank the 60 community-based partners that we worked through, our external experts who helped to guide and design the execution of this project. And most importantly, a huge thank you to the workers and job seekers who so candidly and openly shared their experiences and perspectives with us without which we would be looking at economic data right now. So now that we’ve covered kind of the mechanics of the project, I’m going to turn over to Ashley and we can talk more about the core of the research, what we wanted to know and what we ended up learning. Ashley?

Ashley Putnam

Thank you Sarah. On the next slide, remember as Sarah said, and actually as President Bostic mentioned, this is really about qualitative research. So we know we have a lot of quantitative data and a lot of economic data that we track regularly at the Federal Reserve about how the economy is doing, how many workers are looking for work, how many people are changing jobs on a regular basis. This research really focuses on elevating a human perspective. So I think it’s really critical that this is research that is qualitative in nature and something that is human-centered in its design. We used community-based participatory research methodology to conduct this work and we did this in partnership with several partners, including some colleagues from public works partners who helped us conduct these focus groups. And we’ll share a little bit more as we go through this about what we learned.

But the core questions we were asking really came at this critical moment Sarah mentioned, we had about two job openings for every one job seeker, and the question was, why are people hesitating to go back to work? And so when we started thinking about what we could learn from these focus groups, we were interested in some other questions as well. We were interested in what happened to low wage workers and workers who were in jobs that were paying lower wages or maybe in jobs that may have required them to work one-on-one with individuals or the rest of us were working remotely during the pandemic. And also throughout that initial recovery period, we were also really curious about whether or not those workers were benefiting from this tight labor market. We’ve been hearing this as one of the hottest labor markets in history. There’s more job openings than job seekers.

Are they experiencing greater economic mobility? And then finally, we were curious about, what barriers persist? What’s preventing people from returning to the labor market and how are they changing what they expect from a job? Have they shifted their priorities and are they looking for different kinds of work going forward? So these were the core research questions that informed this research, and I think you’ll see some really critical things that helped inform some lessons we learned that took away from this work. I’ll say on the next slide, one of the most important things for us also was why people were participating in this work. As Sarah mentioned, we used workforce partners and intermediaries to reach out to workers who are in low wage work or workers without college degrees. And as you can see next, those workers expressed to us why they joined. Can you go to the next slide Dan?

So this worker shares here, “The past two years, I’ve been laid off of work many times due to the COVID pandemic, and I was interested in the title, the worker’s voice, because it makes me think I have a voice, the voice of those who are not heard. And I felt the urge to share my experience with other people.” This is something we heard consistently throughout the focus groups. At the beginning of each focus group, we asked people, “Why are you here today? What brought you into this conversation?” And we found that workers were really excited to share their perspectives, to share what they’ve been through, and they did so with candor and honesty and incredible integrity. So again, Sarah echoed, I’m very thankful for the workers who participated in these conversations and for the individuals who shared with us some very touching and really difficult stories about what they had been through through the course of the pandemic and coming out of it.

And one of our big takeaways from these focus groups is that people are really making complicated decisions. And so that is our first finding I’ll share with you today on the next slide, that those complex calculations around whether to work or not work during the pandemic. What we learned is that people were balancing a variety of risks. Those risks included financial instability so, “Do I have enough money? Am I going to be able to make ends meet to pay rent? Can I put food on the table to provide for my family?” But they’re also balancing other concerns, health and safety concerns, right? I have a young child at home. Am I putting them at health risk if I go to work? Maybe I’m caregiving for someone older in my household or someone who has particular needs. What kinds of jobs can I do or someone who has particular needs, what kinds of jobs can I do that mitigate those risks? And those were really difficult choices for a lot of workers. For many people, they were really struggling between that financial insecurity, health and safety concerns and other barriers like lack of access to transportation that were exacerbated by the Covid 19 pandemic. What we heard from workers consistently is that this was a very stressful and traumatic time, and keeping in mind that most of the individuals we spoke with are what we might call essential workers.

Workers who would’ve been in jobs that required them to be in the office or be in a physical interaction with another human being, whether that’s in a hospital or in retail or in hospitality, that many of the people we were speaking with were really making some very difficult choices. They described these things as traumatic and they talk a lot about the impact on their mental health, not just during the course of the pandemic, but going on from the pandemic and how that impacted how they then think about work.

So as we start to really think about what did we learn from workers through these focus groups, I think it’s really important to center how really difficult this was for many of us who are listening today, but particularly for these workers in lower wage roles and then these roles that really required them to take these kinds of risks when they were going to work.

So the next slide, I’ll share a perspective a worker shared with me that I think sums this up really, really nicely. The worker says, “I’ll say for me it wasn’t really easy. It was challenging because I was concerned for my health and the health of my child. I was also very scared because I thought maybe I could lose my job and I wasn’t going to be able to provide the necessary means for my children. It was a tough and challenging moment for me.” And so that I think really humbles us as we start this work and start this discussion to remember what a lot of people have been through that we were speaking with as we start this work, Our Voices research. And I’ll turn it back over to Sarah for the next finding.

Sarah Miller

Thank you, Ashley. Yeah. So if we move on to the next slide, what we see here is one of the core questions that we wanted to ask. We really wanted to understand how workers were faring in this “hot labor market”. And what we found was counterintuitive to the economic data and the national narrative at the time. That no, in fact, the tight labor market was not benefiting all of these workers equally. Many participants talked about significant challenges trying to connect with new jobs, even in a time where we know demand was well outpacing supply.

Also, during this time, we know that employers were doing a number of different practice changes across the board in a variety of sectors to lower the barriers to get workers to connected to these roles. So participants, while they noted that they had been sending out dozens, even 100s of job applications and not getting anywhere, it was frustrating for them to know that that was also the national reality, that employers were doing all of these changes. “I’m trying to find another job, but I’m still not connecting.”

The reality of sending out all of these applications and not getting anywhere was echoed by many of the participants engaged in this research. So they noted that while they could see employers were doing exactly what they were saying, removing degree expectations or years of experience from their job requirements, they still ran into challenges job matching. Some others noted that they had observed while job descriptions including tasks and responsibilities remained intact and degree and experience expectations had been stripped, they also observed a reduction in wages making that job ultimately less desirable of a role for them to pursue.

So those that were actively in a job search really said that they were sending out dozens if not 100s of applications not hearing back or when they were hearing back being brought in for interviews, but having their candidacy not go very far because they lack some of the things that the employer was looking for.

It wasn’t a match. This was the case even if they had years of experience in a certain field. So again, all of this left participants feeling, not just frustrated by their job search, but confused as to why that was their experience when all they heard was how strong the labor market was and how in demand workers were. Now on the other side of this equation, for the workers that did remain in the labor market, they talked about how their day-to-day employment realities were very, very challenging. Those who worked in places that had a lot of open vacancies talked about the stress that they endured from these labor shortages, both in terms of physical and mental stress. Participants talked about having to take on responsibilities that were tantamount to the work of two or three full-time positions working longer and harder hours, and in most cases for no additional increase to their compensation.

So these reality led to a really significant discussion around the effects of burnout that they felt and how those experiences led them to really reevaluate what they expected from a job. So what I think both of these disconnects reveal is that there’s still a lot of work ahead for all of us to make sure that workers without degrees are able to benefit from these practices that are lowering barriers, that are creating more opportunity for them to get connected to meaningful employment to make sure that these workers can reach that full potential.

But as we see here on the next slide, this quote really illustrates the reality of this frustrating job search challenges that was, again, echoed by many participants as this particular job seeker noted, they had been in a job search for months, sending out application after application, getting pulled in, but still being told they’re not what the employer’s looking for. So this certainly had an effect on their mental state and their dissatisfaction with what was happening in that job market, but help them to really think through what they wanted out of a job. So I’m going to turn it over to Ashley now to talk a little bit more about how they’ve defined job quality.

Ashley Putnam

Yeah. So as Sarah mentioned, and as you’ll see on our next slide, and the next finding workers really began to shift what they were looking for in jobs. So due to those experiences they had during the pandemic, and again in this labor market where they’re still submitting application after application, many of the workers in these focus groups articulated to us that they were really wanting jobs that treated them better. They were looking for a higher quality job, jobs with more long-term economic opportunity. And so this was something we’ve been hearing consistently, and we use this opportunity as a chance to really get a worker centric definition of job quality. It’s something we’re going to be doing some upcoming research on as well, diving deeper into this topic. But I wanted to just start with what did the workers say they were looking for in terms of a quality job?

And first and foremost, this was stability of employment, right? So we remember the first finding about how unstable employment was, how stressful that felt for people not knowing whether or not they could make ends meet. Many of the people we spoke with articulated stability as the baseline thing they were looking for. They’re looking for a job that has a stable schedule where they have stable income, where they know that they have that job on a consistent basis. And that isn’t the case for a lot of low wage workers or workers who are working gig jobs or workers who are supplementing income because they’re not making ends meet. The other really major finding around job quality was that many of the workers articulated something that we don’t measure very well in economics, which is the need for a job that treats you with dignity, a job that provides you agency, a job that treats you like you are valued in your work.

When we spoke to workers about this, they mentioned that they wanted to be treated like an individual, like a human being on the job who has needs outside of the job and who isn’t just filling in a role or filling in a slot on the schedule. And so this theme around dignity was really core to our findings of this work. And really something workers were demanding as they’re shifting out of this moment in the pandemic and looking to what they want to do next. We did hear quite a bit about wages. Wages were foundational to what workers were looking for, but they didn’t stand alone. We found that wages were something workers were considering along with other factors. So wages alone may not motivate a worker to take a new job. They’re also looking for that agency dignity value. They’re looking to understand the wages compared to what they’re actually going to be asked to do compared to their experience, and they’re also looking for flexibility and increased work-life balance.

So just like many of us began working remotely, many workers said, “I’m balancing these caregiving needs that I really felt much more deeply during the pandemic when childcare centers were closed, and now I’m looking for a job that allows me to be able to balance those needs and my needs for work.” And so again, workers are really redefining what they’re wanting from work with that central focus on a job that treats you with dignity, a job that provides value. And so that is something we thought was really interesting and very powerful from the findings of these focus groups we conducted last summer. So on the next slide, this worker describes that they want certain benefits, certain hours and certain schedules. And before the pandemic, we were not like that.

That is what they gave us. We accepted because we needed the work. And after the pandemic, we realized work sometimes needs us more. So again, you can see the shift here in how workers are changing, what they’re demanding from work, how workers are reprioritizing, what matters to them, and they’re really centering that need for dignity, agency, value, safety, stability, flexibility as they’re starting to think ahead towards those opportunities. And to that end, I’m going to let Sarah share what we found about what workers are doing to get to those jobs.

Sarah Miller

Thanks, Ashley. So on the next slide we see here are a final theme from this initial analysis, which really focuses and uplifts the perseverance and resilience of the workers and job seekers that we talked to. Many of them were actively engaged in some sort of self investment, whether that was through skills, whether that was through leveraging other networks. They were really trying to enable long-term employment and economic stability by being mobile in the near term. They were investing in varied and old and new methods of training.

Though some are enrolled in traditional two year and four year higher education programs, many talked about self-directed learning, learning from their communities and mentors, leveraging online platforms like YouTubes and other forums to build their skills. Most were focused on how they knew that they needed to really invest in these skills to improve employment opportunities long term. But some also talked about how they had very high entrepreneurial aspirations and goals of self-employment, largely driven by some dissatisfaction that they felt from other jobs that they had had.

They wanted to focus on creating a work environment that was more positive, where they knew that they would be more likely to take on more work, but it would be work that they would have dignity and autonomy over their own working conditions, not just for themselves but for others that they would potentially employ in the future. There’s a lot to dig in on this very topic, and we’re going to have two additional sub briefs that focus on how they’re investing in their skills and also on their entrepreneurial aspirations. So more to come on that. But if we look to this quote that we have here, it really illustrates how workers were really persevering through that current economic moment. So this worker was trying to transition into the tech field, a role that many talked about as a future-proof role, roles that offered more flexibility would be more likely to weather a potential recession.

This participant was saying it has not been easy, but they’re still pushing through. This really left us quite in awe of our participants, given all of the challenging employment experiences that they had had, the struggles that they had with labor shortages and burnout, how they were really demanding greater expectations of job quality. They were also actively investing in themselves to enable that pathway forward for them. But what does this mean moving forward? So if we go to the next slide, we want to talk a little bit about some considerations for the future. What does that mean for us? What do we hope that means for you? So we really do hope that these qualitative insights provide that breadth and depth and it brings that humanity that we largely don’t see in the economic data. Numbers tell us what happened. We were looking for why, and we really want to understand the why long-term.

What is unclear at this moment since we know that the labor demand and supply is starting to moderate slightly, but certainly still well outpacing… Demand is outpacing supply. What do we know about whether or not these trends and these changes to behavior are cyclical or structural? Will this empowerment persist? What does this mean for how we think about labor force participation? What does it mean as we think about how we work with our community-based partners? And what does it mean for our future research? But Ashley, it means a lot to the folks that are on the call here too. So I’ll turn it over to you to close us out.

Ashley Putnam

Yeah, thank you Sarah. And I want to close us with some thoughts about what this research could mean for folks who are listening today. We know that this research has some great implications for employers or people who are working in employers and even some of you who are nonprofit organizations, you are also employers. And so I think there’s some really powerful implications about why workers start working at jobs and how to retain workers. And they’re not just about wages, they’re also about management practices and other real considerations for workers going forward. And actually if we go to the next slide, you’ll see that’s reflected in this really powerful quote on slide 20, which is the participant said that “The pandemic kind of flipped the tables a little bit. I know I can bring a lot to the table. Are you going to uphold your end of it as an employer?”

So at least for me, it gave me a different perspective of don’t settle for less. So we’re excited to think about how to engage employers and others who are starting to think about how do I do a better job attracting talent? How do I do a better job retaining talent? And I think there’s a lot of nuance in this data that tells us a lot of information about what workers are looking for. But the implications of this research go beyond employers. We think there’s real implications for workforce development as a field. Sarah mentioned that the tight labor market wasn’t benefiting everyone equally, that in spite of employers lowering the threshold for what they’re looking for in terms of employees, what qualifications you have to have, workers are still struggling to get in the door. And so I think that’s a real call to action for the workforce development field that is really necessary at this point in time to be able to connect those two disconnected things in the labor market.

There’s also some implications for policy makers, and those are all sorts of policies. How do we think about what workers are reprioritizing, how they’re shifting what they’re looking for, what kind of career pathways are they interested in? And how do all of us think about elevating the voices of workers and the voice of lived experience and the research and the work that we do. So with that, I do want to conclude and mention that some of the other things we have coming up on the next slide. I do want to mention some ways to get in touch with us. So Sarah and I know that this is just so much research and there’s so much more to do with this. We do have some sub briefs that we will be publishing on this. And as mentioned before, those include topics of job quality, barriers to employment, skill development and entrepreneurship.

We’re also going to be publishing a sub brief on the community-based participatory research methods that we use to do this research. We think the process and the how is just as important as the what and we hope that can be useful to others who are tuning in today. That being said, if you are doing work or research on this, we’d love to connect with you. I saw one of the questions today was about folks who work on Alice, Alice’s asset limited income constrained, employed, and we know some of our folks in New Jersey have led that work. We think that work and research is also really relevant. So again, if you’re listening today and you’re doing work on this, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We know that this is really just a spark for what we hope is a continued conversation where we all continue to center lived experience, the voice of workers, and the voices, the individuals who are impacted by the programs we work on and around.

So with that being said, I’m really excited to introduce what should be an absolutely amazing panel and especially excited to invite a friend and colleague, Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, who’s going to be moderating this conversation. Tameshia is the Vice President of Workforce and Regional Economies at Jobs for the Future. She has an incredible background and depth of knowledge around these issues we’re talking about today. She comes to that work from the Kellogg Foundation and previously spent 10 years at Paraprofessional Health Institute where she was actually working on improving the job quality of direct care workers. So like many of the people who participated in our focus groups. So thank you so much for leading this conversation, Tameshia, and I’ll pass it over to you. And also we look forward to your questions. Please keep populating the Q and A. Sarah and I will pass over the questions towards the end of the panel, and we look forward to joining you then. Thank you.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Thanks so much, Ashley, for the invitation. And thank you for the introduction and welcome everyone. I’m really looking forward to diving into and hearing some reflections from our panelists. As Ashley said, I’m Tameshia Bridges Mansfield. I’m vice President for Workforce Innovation at Jobs for the Future. And this topic of job quality is really central at the heart of our work. And it is reflected in Jobs for the Future’s North Star, where in 10 years, 75 million people who are facing systemic barriers to advancement will work in quality jobs. And that’s a really big statement, and it is a statement that we know is going to take a whole range of stakeholders to help us get to. And what’s really exciting about our work, about this conversation, and what this conversation we’re going to have today opens us up to is really the opportunity to think broadly about what we mean by job quality.

And so even as we think about it at Jobs for the Future, it encompasses compensation and pay, but it also goes beyond that, which is what was reflected in what Sarah and Ashley shared, that the ways that we should define job quality really also include things like worker agency, the culture in which people are working in, the structure of their job and how it allows for stability. And also what are the opportunities for people to advance both within their current employment or in the field or the industry that they are currently in or want to go into. So that holistic definition of job quality, I think is one that we will definitely dive into a bit more in the conversation. And now I’m looking forward to introducing our panelists. So if Rebecca and David and Mr. Taylor can come on, we will get the conversation going.

Great. So I’m going to start really quickly with introducing folks. And I will start off with introducing Rebecca Hanson. And Rebecca Hanson is the executive director of the SEIU UHW Joint Employer Education Fund that serves 100,000 SEIU members across six states or across six SEIU local unions in 22 healthcare industry employers all on the West Coast. Our next panelist is David Byard, who is an accomplished musician and producer, and he’s always aspired for a career in technology. So as the research showed, workers really used the opportunity to pivot in their careers. And now David serves as a teaching Fellow at Per Scholas Philadelphia, where he is training and supporting other aspiring technologists just like himself in the city of Philly that he calls home.

And then finally, I’d like to welcome, I think it’s raining where I am, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. who is the president and Chief executive officer at SHRM. So I hope you all are ready to dive into this conversation and the questions that we are going to have ahead of us for the next few minutes here. And I’m going to start with you, Rebecca. So hearing what we heard about the findings from the Worker Voices project research, we know that you serve, as I said, 100,000 members who are like many of those who were included in the research and healthcare occupations. From what you have read of the report and what you’ve just heard in the first part of this webinar, what if anything, resonated with you about the findings? And then what do you do to uplift member voices within the fund strategy in your work?

Rebecca Hanson

Thank you so much, Tameshia, and it’s such a pleasure to be here and join this conversation today. A lot resonates in the report. I think a lot of us remember this, but during the early stage of the pandemic, a lot of the description in the worker voices analysis of how people had to evaluate their safety and make really hard decisions about how this would impact their family. And since the population that we represent in our work at SEIU is in healthcare and I work mostly in hospitals and ambulatory settings, they were definitely trying to figure out, “Can I get a hotel room so I don’t have to bring this home?” And we saw… Because a lot of the workers we represent are really on the front lines of security, front desk, that a lot of those workers didn’t have access to PPE initially or really an ability to manage their safety in the workplace initially.

And so that was a huge part of the worker voice in the role of the union, working in partnership with employers to really try to get some of those barriers in place, like the plastic barriers when people come in and things like that. That was a lot of collaboration from the very start of the pandemic to support these workers and what they were going through. And we heard over and over again that workers, for example in janitorial services and hospitals, when the buses stopped running, they couldn’t get to their shifts. So there was just huge amounts of difficulty even getting to the work when all the different supports they had in terms of transportation, childcare were no longer available. One month into the pandemic, we started to receive a lot of benefits from different funders who were looking to get sort of immediate cash relief to people.

And in giving those, it was really, I think, educational in terms of what people were dealing with. When we asked workers, what are you going to use this money for? Small cash gifts and cash cards they could use for different needs. It was often gas, food, basics of utilities and things like that that they needed support and funding even while working during the pandemic. And I would just say I just really resonated too with the issue that Sarah brought up around those who remain on the job have had, and even up until today, increased levels of burnout, increased workloads, just ongoing struggle around the shortages in at least our industry.

But I also want to say that we saw really inspirational level of interest from workers during this time in reinventing themselves as the study described. So we’ve had our highest levels of utilization of education and training programs historically at our organization during the years of the pandemic, peaking at 27,000 individuals in 2021, but staying well above 20,000 since then. And so we’ve seen that quadrupling of people interested in pursuing different certificates and degree programs and a real desire to sort of figure out a longer term, more sustainable job and wage. Many workers that we represent work multiple jobs, maybe two or three jobs in order to cover all of their life expenses. We’re working in West Coast, some expensive states with high costs of living. And so we’re just seeing that more and more workers are looking for improving that more and more workers are looking for improving their quality of life by upscaling into jobs with higher wages that also allow them to reduce down to one job and to have more flexibility and sustainability in their lives. And I think like the study found, there’s just so much stepping back, reassessment, reconsideration of our lives and how we want to live and how our jobs serve that. So I definitely resonated with everything in the report in that respect. And just on worker voice, I’ll just say that worker voice is really essential in our work, and it starts at the level of board members of our organization, our frontline caregivers and healthcare workers all the way through to workers serving in joint labor management committees, joint apprenticeship committees, and also being able to really help design and inform the programs.

We really dive deep to understand the supply side, like this project, a lot through focus groups, as well as just having workers on committees that are really helping design and define what the training programs are that we offer. Workers serve as mentors, as recruiters for the programs. And really, during the pandemic, I’ll say, I think took even greater ownership in making sure, even though staff of the training fund couldn’t be in the facilities during the pandemic, the union members themselves were spreading the word and making sure people knew about opportunities that were available to them. But I’ll pass it back to you, Tameshia, to hear from our other panelists.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Yeah, no, I think a lot of what you said is really going to connect to some other questions, and particularly the one about mental health that I’ll ask a little bit later, but that point you made about the growth in people really thinking about reassessing who they are and their work and what they want to do going forward, it’s something I want to pivot and talk a bit to, speaking of pivot, with you a little bit, David. So we heard from Sarah and Ashley and we also just now heard from Rebecca that a lot of workers really looked at that time in the immediacy of the pandemic and then after of making that pivot to different jobs and industries. Can you share a little bit more about your career journey and how you made your pivot to Per Scholas and what were you looking for when you were looking at and considering training in that moment and what you pursued there?

David Byard

Well, first and foremost, good afternoon, everybody, but yeah, basically my story begins back in 2019. I was, of course, doing music and production and stuff like that, but also on the side, I was a security guard for 12 years. Around the time of the pandemic, things got crazy. I got laid off and I was like, okay, what is the next step? What am I going to do? But I always had a knack for tech, always loved to basically get into that and I just basically said, okay, I’m going to just basically go forward working in tech. But for some crazy reason, every job that I tried to go into just would not hire me because I didn’t have the certifications. And when I tried to go with Tech Systems, they gave me the same thing, but Tech Systems said, do you know about this place called Per Scholas?

I was like, no, I don’t know about this place. What are you talking about? But they said, yeah, just trust us. We’ll work with you. So we got into that and they referred me, actually, to Per Scholas Philadelphia and everything else just started from there. And I think around spring of 2020, that’s when I enrolled in that program in IT support for A+ certification. I graduated in the summer of 2020 and through Tech Systems, I was able to get my first job. I was able to get my first project. Then after that, I think around December of 2020, I got a position with Comcast. It is funny how that story works because I’m across the street from the Comcast Center here in Philadelphia and that was the same place that actually I was guarding. So it’s crazy that I was in the same building that I was protecting and guarding and I was able to meet friends I knew and able to put in my badge and go upstairs and work as a desktop support engineer.

So that was a great experience. After that, the contracts just kept coming. I just started working not only with Comcast, but also with Five Below and Jefferson Health. And then after a while, about two years later, my instructor, who is now director here, Ali Hyman, got in touch with me. He said, “How do you feel about being an instructor?” At first, I thought he was like, okay, I thought you were joking. I’m like, really? I’m like, I don’t know nothing about instruction. I don’t know. What are you talking about? So he’s like, “Trust me, trust me. Try for a year, see if it works out for a year.” And so we said, okay, I’m going to give it a shot. Went into the Per Scholas instructor university, very prestigious. From the door, they basically helped me out where I needed to go. And I started out in Boston as RTT. What that means is remote teaching. I was working from home.

I did that for a little bit. Once again, I don’t know if they’re watching. Shout out to Steven, my first instructor I worked under, and Tyrone, who was also a site director in Boston. Thank you guys very much for the help. But after that, an opportunity came to come back home to Philly. And after that I was like, okay. At first I thought it was just going to be a couple of weeks because they needed somebody to just fill in. After about a year of that, they came to me. Nikki, who was the managing director here in the Per Scholas Philadelphia campus. “How would you like an opportunity to work full-time in this campus?” I said, “Great, I’m all for it.” And after a few months of that, I was thankfully promoted as teaching fellow, and it’s a crazy situation where I never would’ve thought in a million years that a security guard starting out would basically become a teaching fellow here at Per Scholas. But I do want to once again send my thank-yous to Ali Hyman, who believed in me and gave me the opportunity.

Once again, I know it’s cheesy to say, but I do want to definitely give thanks to Per Scholas Philadelphia and this campus for giving me the opportunity to spread my wings and basically not only teach me what I needed to know, give me certified, and also have the experience to now become the teacher that I wanted to always be. And I feel like this is my calling and I feel like this is definitely a place that I wanted to be and just spread my knowledge and help the next generation, help the guys and gals that need to make their moves in this field.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Yeah, no, I think that’s great, and I think you’re speaking to that two sides of what you saw was your vision of where you wanted to go, and then what were the connections and folks who saw your potential, and then really the role that employers pay, and I’ll pivot to you next, Johnny, and the role that employers play in making those connections, providing those opportunities, and seeing the potential of their staff. And so with you, Mr. Taylor, there’s been a lot of strategies that employers have taken since the pandemic to make that connection work to make connecting people to jobs a lot easier, and one of the big ones that we’re hearing now is around the value of skills and capabilities over degrees.

So to what David said around couldn’t get hired at first, but then made the right connections to be able to get the skills to be able to get in the door into those jobs. So one of the things that we know is that what it’s going to take to change how employers have long done their recruiting and hiring really takes a lot of time to change. And would be curious to know what you have seen from your members on their approaches to get more workers attached to jobs, especially in a tight labor market, and what have been both the successes in doing that and the challenges in terms of changing that whole HR function of recruiting, hiring, and retaining workers?

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

Well, first of all, thank you and congratulations, David. Just hearing your story put a big smile on my face because we at SHRM and the entire employer community, we believe in this concept of the dignity of work, and we believe wholeheartedly in opportunity. And frankly, to some extent because we had the luxury over the last several decades of more people to fill the jobs than we had jobs, we could be selective. We actually spent more time being exclusive than inclusive. And so we used all sorts of proxies for smart. The degree, not just the degree, but the degree from a certain school and if not a certain school, but you had to be in the top 5% of the class at that certain school. And so we were really going through the process of weeding people out as opposed to trying to find out who we could bring in.

I often say this. Over the last now two decades, the American birth rate has been on a decline. We’ve seen a steady drop during the pandemic in particular. Year 2020, the American birth rate dropped by 4% and it stands to reason. No one wanted to become pregnant and have to go to a hospital in the middle of a pandemic, right? So people were not having children. That has created a real problem for us as we’ve come out of the pandemic is we have a shortage for talent, one that will get far worse over the next two decades because even children born last year have to grow up. They’ve got to be educated, they’ve got to be prepared to do something, so we have a workforce challenge that employers fully understand. And what that has resulted in is a shift in how we see talent acquisition.

It is not about excluding candidates, it’s about finding so that we can include candidates in our workforce. Net-net, that’s a good thing. And so believe it or not, HR departments have gotten very aggressive about that. We’re not saying that college degrees are bad. We think that a certain percentage of the population who can perform well at college and will benefit from a college education, the investment in time and money should do so. But we also know that a significant number of roles simply don’t require a college degree, and we should be spending time trying to identify specifically what the tasks are of the job, what skills are necessary to do it, not what school you attended or what degree you obtained or your grades in that, even. We need to know proficiency. So HR functions everywhere led by talent acquisition professionals or who you’d call recruitment have now built into their systems through interviewing, let’s find out what you can do.

So the job description, or I should say the resume of the past, which listed a whole bunch of things that said, I was in this club and I was this and I was that, and I have this degree. Now we say, tell us what you’ve done in your prior jobs. Tell us some of the skills that you have that may not be obvious. You were in security, for example. You described guarding, David, in your last job. Well, there are a lot of information security jobs right now. CISO is one of the biggest areas right now. We need people to fill these information systems security jobs, and so we can see that and say, this person has a predisposition, a commitment to security. Let’s figure out how we give him or her the skills so that they can fill that job.

The biggest aha for employers is in times past, we would say, it’s your job to get the degree. It’s our job to give you a job. Now we’re saying maybe you don’t need the degree, and it’s actually not even necessarily your job to have the skills. If you bring the right work ethic, the right mindset, the right commitment to opportunity, we will actually teach you what you need to learn and then you will be more loyal to us. You will retain longer. You actually may be a little bit more inexpensive because instead of demanding a really high salary so that you can afford to pay your student loans and work and eat and all of that, you didn’t make that investment. You were able to come to us.

You’ve gotten your skills, many of them debt-free or light debt, and you have an opportunity to actually stay with us longer, commit with us longer, be more productive, et cetera. So I’m pleased to say that the employer community has wholeheartedly embraced this idea that we’re looking for people who have the ability to do the job, who want to do the job, and we will then provide them the skills, equip them with the skills to do it. That’s not just SHRM speaking. Overwhelmingly, when you talk to HR folks, we are way past requiring the degree for a job. We need someone who can do the job, and if we need to help get them prepared to do the job, we’ll do that, too.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Mm-hmm. And hopefully it’s that more expansive orientation to understanding people fully that can stop that closed door thing that happens that was talked about in the report, but also really depletes people’s morale, right?

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

Self-esteem is shocking, right?

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

And confidence and all of that, which then gets to the mental health issue. So going back to the question that you asked, Rebecca, the Federal Reserve’s research did highlight just how significantly the challenges that workers face in the job market and on the job really impacts people’s mental health. Everything from financial instability and job security, and really having a role that many times just asks people to do more work that is expected. All of that is leading to burnout once they’re in the job, let alone to the burnout that folks face just trying to get a job when that exclusion is happening that Johnny spoke to. As we know, protecting mental health of workers is really a journey for a lot of us in this workplace, and I know that you at SEIU have also conducted a similar survey on specifically the mental health challenges that are faced within the union workforce. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned from that work and the approach that you all are taking going forward to really look at and be responsive to what workers are saying to you?

Rebecca Hanson

Yeah, thank you so much. Yeah, so the background of this was in about March of 2022, we’d seen a number of surveys come out, including a prior survey of the same survey instrument from Mental Health America looking at mostly doctors and nurses, a large number of those workers, actually majority being white, and a need to expand that conversation to include all parts of the healthcare workforce and including a lot of positions that actually represent more workers of color, self-identified workers of color. And so we launched a survey, I think similar to what somebody said about the sort of overwhelming desire people have to share their experience and really have their voice heard. We had over 5,000 respondents in just three weeks to the survey, which was remarkable. 77% of the responders were workers of color in allied health jobs, janitorial, housekeeping, food service, lab administrative jobs overwhelmingly saying they did not have sufficient emotional support and no time to stop and assess and take time for themselves, let alone get support at work for the mental health impact they were having, and that it was also affecting their physical health.

Their top stressors at work included increased or heavy workloads, experiencing racism at work, and witnessing a high number of deaths. So this was impacting every level of worker in the hospital, seeing people come in and not seeing them go out. Also, the outcome of the study or the conclusions of the study by Mental Health America suggest that the long-term impact of the pandemic is a negative impact on patient care, a negative impact on the diversity of retaining workers. We saw that in the survey, 45% of those in the survey said they were thinking of leaving the healthcare industry altogether, and another 60%, if you look at only workers of color responding to that question, 60% considering leaving healthcare altogether, and this contributing to staffing shortages. And how we’ve responded is really in designing programs that improve the support available for emotional wellness to our workforce, designing programs that impact retention and also career mobility.

We’ve been able to partner with our employers to assess that for those union members who utilize our programs, they have 50% lower turnover than those who don’t. And a 48% average wage increase for those progressing through skill and certificate training into higher wage jobs. So it has a pretty big impact, and it also impacts the diversity of the patient care workforce. 70% of those we train are workers of color and 80% are women. And so we’re really focused on offering training for those in nonclinical moving into clinical roles where we see the sharpest shortages and biggest retention issues. We’re supporting degree and certificate programs for clinical roles, and we’re offering skill courses and continuing education that help in retention. We can look at the data. We know it helps in retention. I think Johnny talked about how there’s just a huge benefit that employers see when they invest in their workforce in terms of retention and loyalty.

And this will have another impact. We talked a lot about how the pandemic accelerated technology change, A lot of care moved online that used to be in person, all kinds of different changes in how we deliver education, training programs, people learning a lot of new skills. One of the things that we were tracking even before the pandemic was that there already exists technology today that could automate about 48% of a medical assistant job, which is an entry level medical role, versus 15% of an RN’s job could be automated. So as you move people up a pathway from MA to nursing, you’re increasing their resilience, not only in terms of giving them higher wages, access to new career opportunities and greater loyalty and lower turnover. You’re also creating more resiliency in the face of technology change that’s only been accelerated, but will continue. And so we really see these education and training opportunities as the key for the future. That’s a win-win for employees and employers.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

No, I think that’s really fascinating to hear, both what the research shows you around that holistic thing about what makes a job good, what makes me feel good about coming to a job and staying, and it’s a lot more than pay. It’s the investment going in to employees and their wellbeing and also to their skill development as well. So David, and this might be the last question and then we’ll see how much time we have, but then we’ll pivot to Q&A, because I know that’s been fired up in the chat, but David, would love to close out with you in hearing, we know that defining job quality is tricky because there isn’t a one size fits all for business and industry to follow, right?

Because different industries have different needs, different workers have different needs, and would love to hear from your own perspective, what comes to mind when you think about a quality job and how do you weigh that? How do you assess that when you’re looking at deciding around where to go to for a new job or where to stay, either from your perspective or even what you encourage your students to look for, even, or to consider as they’re trying to figure out what to do in their own path as it relates to job quality?

David Byard

Yes. Number one, you have to like what you do. That’s bottom line. If you’re going to go in there for 40 hours, day in, day out, bust your behind, you’re going to want to basically at least like what you do. That’s number one. Number two, the job has to pay well. You want to make sure that not only you’re able to pay your bills, you’re also able to thrive. If I’m going to put in the time to get the skills, the knowledge, the experience, and in my situation, I’m working contracts year after year, I want to be able to build and expand my pay as I go along. So if I’m going into a situation where I want to going into a job, yeah, the pay has to match what I’m bringing to the table. Number three, benefits, mandatory without a doubt. Healthcare, vision, dental.

Lord willing, when I have children and a family, I want to make sure that I’m taking care of them and I’m thriving, taking care of my family, making sure they have the best life to basically say the least. Scheduling, that’s number four. You don’t want to basically be in a situation where you’re putting a lot of work in and the pay is low. You want to make sure that your schedule matches your pay. How could I say this? Once again, as I said in the beginning, if I’m going to bust my behind, I’m going to come in through traffic, I’m going to come in through transportation. In Philly, the transportation is crazy, so you want to make sure that the schedule is right and make sure that you’re able to work the 40 hours. I know some people work 12-hour days, but you want to make sure the pay matches the schedule. And as I mentioned, not a fair wage, not just something, oh, I could just live and pay my bills, but something I could thrive on, something that I know for a fact that I could save up, I could expand. When I have a family, I want to make sure that my family is taken care of, I’m taken care of, and all of that is good. And let me see. And also, as a Black man, I just want to basically bring up you want to feel like the wages are equal to everybody. That’s the biggest thing for me is I don’t want to have no sort of wall blocking me or anybody else because of their color, because of their gender, or who they identify as. That’s not something that I’m a fan of, and I just just believe that in this new “post pandemic job market,” we have to keep that in mind. The biggest thing I always say is, “Can you do the job? I don’t care about your race, I don’t care about your gender, I don’t care about who you identify as. Can you do the job?” As my career coach, Lenny would say, “We’re problem solvers.” IT people are problem solvers. Can you come in and solve the problems at this company? That’s going to be the biggest thing that I look at as far as the perspective of working in a job.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Yeah, I really like what you said about pay and thrive, right? As those two things being important. And I think that’s reflective in both the research that was done both by the Fed as well as the research that SEAU has done. And to what you were saying Johnny as well, it’s that whole picture of what people need. And what we say at JFF And what I say is “What do people need to live fully, right?” And to really just bring, we always say we want people to bring their whole selves. But are the spaces that people work in the place where their whole selves are valued, are respected and are compensated appropriately and well. And so I think it is all of that. So I want to thank you all for this part of the conversation and we’re going to start taking some questions for the next 10 minutes or so from the audience.

So stay tuned. I know I’m not going to be able to pull everybody’s questions, but some of them I’ll definitely float up. So the first one is actually for you Johnny, and it kind of speaks back to some of the earlier conversation around are the trends that we are seeing both in terms of the realities of the labor market and the response cyclical or structural? And so what this person is wanting to know is that are these employers and workers making shifts just for this point in time or do you think these trends in employer behavior are really going to stick with us and persist over time?

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

That’s a great question. It’s why I’ll briefly remind them that the demographic realities of the demographic realities, children that have not been born over the last two decades are not going to be future workers just by definition. And while yes, there is some hope that here in Washington we can solve for some of the shortage through workforce immigration, we don’t seem to be able to figure that one out either as we get into a highly politicized selection year next year. So I think we are in for a long haul. This is not something that’s going to be solved overnight.

And as I pointed out earlier, even if everyone who is willing and capable to have a kid does tonight, like we’re 20 years before, that’s going to solve for the workforce issue. So we’re in this for a long time. The second issue though, and I think it really is during the pandemic, people literally, and I think Rebecca alluded to this or maybe one of your earlier speakers, but people fundamentally changed their relationship with work when they wanted to work, where they wanted to work, for whom they wanted to work, for how much they wanted to work.

All of that occurred in that period from March 13th, 2020. I remember the day Friday the 13th we referred to, when essentially the world went remote and for the next six to nine months you had this period of time, and I remembered walking down the streets of Washington DC there were no cars, the Starbucks wasn’t open, the Dunking Donuts wasn’t open, there was no movie theater to go to. So you had all of this free time during which people really engaged in serious introspection and they came out of this on the other side of the pandemic saying, my relationship with work is not going to simply return to what it was. There’s a new way of thinking about this, and I wrote a book called Reset during that period because it wasn’t just the great pause, it was a total reset. So these are structural shifts in the mindsets of workers that we can’t long for the good old days, there is no pre-pandemic.

The world changed. And so I think we are very confidently from an HR perspective and the profession is saying we know that people’s relationship with work has forever changed. I mean, just think about this. Pre-pandemic, single digits, the number of people who worked remotely full-time. Post pandemic, and then during the pandemic that peaked to a high of 50, 60%, it’s come down, but it didn’t come back down to 8%, 7% like it was before, and we won’t ever see that again. We’ve actually challenged ourselves this notion that you couldn’t do certain tasks remotely has now been sort of turned on its head. And so those days of going back there has been literally a structural shift. Now in response to that, we as employers have said, not only are we going to change that, but I think it was Rebecca, I know it was Rebecca who mentioned some percentage of people’s work that they used to do, and I think she was talking about allied professionals will now be done by automation, but there are implications for that because that means those jobs or some significant percentage of jobs are going to go away.

So employers are also responding to that. And I’m often reminded of the movie Hidden Figures. This is the sort of final point in response to that question. If you remember the women, African-American story of women who were mathematicians and statisticians and they were referred to as computers, if you remember the storyline. And then a machine came in place and took away all of the jobs that they had done in the past, the actual computations to put man on the moon. And instead of saying, “Okay, that means I guess I’ll never work for the rest of my life, or that college degree in math that I earned is now useless,” they began to program said machines.

So there is an upskilling and a re-skilling that will be necessary for people to remain competitive because AI is there. We all know the big day when that occurred, November 30th, 2022, we introduced Cat GPT to the world. And so employers are finding ways to become better, more efficient at what they’ve done, and human beings have got to catch up. Now that is also a big systems thinking kind of shift in the mindset that a lot of the jobs that you and your parents and your grandparents relied on won’t exist five years from now or will be so meaningfully reconstituted that they won’t exist. So lifelong learners is the new phrase. And it’s not just an employer task and responsibility, it’s the responsibility of every one of us.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Yeah, yeah, I agree. And I remember maybe about a year into the pandemic when people were like, “We got to go back.” And people were like, “Go back to what?” There’s no going back anymore. It’s about responding to what is in front of us now from the lessons we learned and then always looking forward. And I think what this moment is showing us is that the inputs for designing what that new moment looks like has to include workers’ voices, has to also include and be responsive to what employers are saying are needed. And I think it’s a more balanced picture probably, hopefully then.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.

If I could add one other. Yes workers’ voices, yes, employer’s voices, but one that we don’t talk about enough is the consumer’s voice because the economics have to work. Yes, we’d love to pay people $40 an hour, but not if the consumer at McDonald’s won’t pay more for a happy meal or can’t afford to pay more for that happy meal. So the money has to come from somewhere. And so that’s part. We are also increasingly, especially as the economy has slowed down, is yes, I know you want to make more money and as my friend David was talking about a thriving, but employers have said, “Yeah, and we’ve got to pay the debt that we borrowed to make this business work, and so we also have to return and have to return on our investment.” And then the consumer is saying, “But I don’t have as much to spend as I used to because things have… Gas is four or $5 a gallon. Interest rates are double what they were just a year and a half ago.”

So there’s a real tension that exists. And so we’ve got to listen to all communities, not just workers and employers, but the consumer is increasingly saying, “Okay, then instead of stopping by the coffee store three or four times a week, I’m now going twice.” That has an impact as well.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Yeah, I think the consumer piece is key, and I know Rebecca being in healthcare, that whole quality care quality job dynamic is very, very real. Because if the job is good, then the care is good and those things go together and the expectations happen as well. And so a question for you, Rebecca. What role do you see organized labor playing in creating more quality jobs, opening up pathways, particularly when we see a decline in union representation in some spaces and a growth in others? What is that role in this moment for labor?

Rebecca Hanson

Yeah, I’ll just say, and this is a little bit informed by my specific work, which is labor management partnership in a particular industry, healthcare, where what we’re trying to do is really raise the floor on every job in healthcare. And I know you had done previous work in indirect caregiving, and I think there’s just a wide recognition that caregiving work is super important and critical for us to thrive and also for the functioning of our economy in that it’s going to be, I think a long struggle to really get those jobs valued the way they need to be by our society and the investment that we need to have.

And I would just say that part of those efforts include efforts to increase and create a $25 minimum wage for healthcare workers in California. That’s been a legislative effort this year. There’s all kinds of efforts that look to address the industry as a whole rather than just bargaining for one group of workers. And I think that’s going to need to continue. In terms of quality career pathways, I’ll just say this is really at the heart of what we’re talking about and we’ve talked about removing requirements off job descriptions. It’s just insufficient in terms of truly changing how people advance in their careers.

In the past we did analysis and found that only 10% of allied health workers had any kind of career pathway in healthcare. And so how do we flip that on its head? People come into our industry and entry level jobs with limited immediate opportunities for advancement, and we’re really changing that and employers are really embracing the idea that we want to be talking to people about their career path from the very start, from when they are in their new employee orientation. We even want to think about how do we systemically change the education system to create more affordable, higher quality training options? And I see that we’re running really short on time, so I’ll just say I just think that unions can play a really critical role through labor management partnership and really ensuring those pathways become sort of a new system in this country for how we train workers and how workers advance on the job.

Tameshia Bridges Mansfield

Thank you for that, Rebecca, and I want to really thank our panelists, so thank you David. Thank you Johnny, and thank you Rebecca. And thank you again to the folks at the Federal Reserve for everything that we were able to even have this conversation. And now I’m going to turn it over to close us out over to President Harker. Thank you.

Patrick T. Harker

Thank you very much Tameshia for leading that enlightened discussion and thank you to Rebecca, David and Johnny for sharing your stories and insights. And of course thank you to Fed Communities and my colleagues from throughout the system, including Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic, who we heard from earlier for their partnership in the Worker Voices Project. To be short, we are at a watershed moment in our economy, and I’m not just talking about the fight against inflation in which we are making progress. It is a watershed moment in the labor market as well, especially for those of us who look at data and try to interpret their meaning. But numbers have two inherent problems. First, the numbers we get are always backward looking, a snapshot from an earlier time. Second, the numbers blur the faces and voices of those they seek to capture. They can only tell us so much.

This is where discussions like this and more specifically efforts like the Worker Voices Project are so essential. For our economy at this moment, it is important for those of us who hold a responsibility for promoting full employment and fostering economic opportunity to know in real time why workers are making the decisions. They are, especially workers either employed in low wage positions or those who do not have a college degree. And I also would suggest that there are important messages that employers would be wise to heed concerning the kind of workplace they may need to create to attract the workforce they will need to be successful. By education, I’m a civil engineer even more than an economist, and if you know anything about civil engineers, we’re always looking for ways to make things stronger, better, and more resilient. For me, this includes our economy. As we have heard from today’s discussion, the factors going into the decisions made by workers of where to work, when to work, or whether to leave the work they have previously known to blaze an entirely new path like David has are increasingly complex.

And we oversimplify these complexities at our own peril, whether as policymakers or employers. Now, certainly the pandemic did not create these complexities. As long as there has been work, workers have made decisions about their place and role in the economy based on a number of factors. And workers today have more choices before them. The pandemic served as a breaking point for all these stresses. A few other times in history of so many seemingly come to the same conclusions about their future in the workforce. They want to be treated with respect and dignity. They want the opportunity to gain new skills that will provide them with upward mobility. They don’t want a job that doesn’t just get them through the day, but the opportunity to create a satisfying and high quality career. They want managers who recognize that they, like them, have families and dreams outside of work, and strive to ensure an appropriate work-life balance.

The expectation of workers is that they will be treated as individuals, and this is especially true for workers and jobs at the lower ranges of the wage scale or those without degrees. Jobs are not one size fits all and neither are workers. Hiring processes may be more automated, but no worker wants to be treated like an automaton. And the Worker Voices Project is providing the data that put this reality into greater focus and perspective. And as a result, many of us who have studied economics are having to rethink some of the premises we had previously relied upon. But that’s probably a good thing despite what many of us were taught in Econ 101, the study of economics is not all straight lines and straightforward conclusions. Sometimes the economy and those contributing to it not only bend long-established rules but contribute to the creation of new ones in the process.

We appear to be at that kind of moment now, and the research in the Worker Voices Project is contributing to this new way of thinking, which is good because if one thing is now crystal clear, it is that workers no longer want to be treated as merely a plot point on a graph. For us policymakers, the soft data provided by worker voices are equally important, as if not perhaps even more important than numbers driven hard data and getting a full understanding of our economic situation. And I’m excited. I’m excited not just about this report, but for the research that is going to grow out of it.

The more we can bring the examples outlined in the Worker Voices report into our way of thinking, the better our chances of creating a strong growing and more inclusive American economy. So when I hear someone utter the apocryphal question, “Why doesn’t anyone want to work anymore?” My response is to ask in return, “What are you doing in your workplace to make them want to work for you?” And point them to the Worker Voices Project. Again, I thank our panelists and everyone who contributed to today’s webinar, and I thank all of you watching for spending part of your afternoon with us. So Whitney, I’ll now hand the program back to you. Thank you.

Whitney Felder

What a great discussion today. Special thank you to President Harker from the Philadelphia Fed and President Bostic from the Atlanta Fed. Also, thank you to our panel of speakers and today’s moderator, Tameshia. Attendees, thank you for spending your valuable afternoons with us today. We hope you enjoyed this session as much as we did.

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