The Good Jobs Imperative
There are a lot of bad, low-paying jobs in the U.S. economy today—and not enough good ones. Barbara Dyer wants that to change. She has for decades been focused on understanding the conditions that shape work—particularly low-wage work—with an eye toward making work work better for both employees and organizations.
Dyer’s interest in job quality informed her years at the Hitachi Foundation, where she served as CEO and President from 1998 through 2016. Then it led her to join the MIT Sloan faculty full-time, as a Senior Lecturer affiliated with the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER). At the same time, with IWER, Dyer launched the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan and became its Executive Director.
Now, Dyer is transitioning to a new phase in her career. As a Research Affiliate at IWER, she no longer has to fly to Cambridge from her home in Washington, D.C. each week to teach—but she’ll still participate in selected projects. What’s more, Dyer’s pioneering efforts at the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative will now be incorporated into MIT IWER as a whole.
Martha Mangelsdorf, the Director of Strategic Communications for the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER), spoke with Dyer recently about her insights from her experiences at MIT Sloan and elsewhere. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Mangelsdorf: You became the Executive Director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan in 2017, but you've been focused on the topic of good jobs for much longer than that. Tell us a little bit about how your interest in that subject evolved.
Dyer: My interest is rooted in my own experience as a daughter of an immigrant in a working-class family. It strengthened in my early career in a community nonprofit serving young women. I witnessed the stresses and the limitations that income insecurity imposes on families. I concluded that the best way out of poverty is a good job, and that much needed to be done to support current and future workers throughout their work lives.
When I began working for the National Governors’ Association, I saw the issues through a policy lens. Policies, even well-meaning ones, often have consequences that either directly or inadvertently perpetuate poverty.
When I became CEO and President of the Hitachi Foundation, I had the opportunity to peer through the lens of business. The Foundation was concerned both about poverty in America and about the broader role of business in society. We put the two together to ask: What is the role of business with respect to alleviating poverty? The answer: offering good-quality jobs. We set out to explore why some businesses offer good jobs to frontline workers and others do not.
What were some of the primary lessons that came out of that effort?
Dyer: We developed an approach that involved identifying businesses that were creating good jobs for frontline workers. We called them “Pioneer Employers.” This was a positive deviance research method in which we found employers who deviated from the norm in their sector or region, to offer better jobs.
We were surprised to discover as many businesses as we did that offered good-quality jobs. We concentrated on manufacturing and healthcare and learned about [MIT Sloan Professor] Zeynep Ton’s work as she was studying good jobs in retail operations.
Another thing we discovered that was not surprising is that running a business is tough no matter how you choose to operate. I don’t know that following a good jobs approach is much harder than running a company another way, but we learned that changing from running a company one way to another is especially hard. It is good to bake these approaches in from the start, which is why we also focused on start-ups at the Foundation.
In academic literature that your MIT Sloan colleague Tom Kochan often refers to, there is a concept known as high-performance work systems, which refers to a set of management practices that enable companies to create better-paying jobs for frontline workers by training workers and deploying them in ways that result in higher productivity. Does that model fit what you saw in the good jobs companies you identified?
Dyer: We saw all sorts of variations on the theme, and yes, these all have common elements. And I'd say that Zeynep Ton’s good job strategy is also a variation on the high-performance work systems concept.
What made you decide to start the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan?
Dyer: Among academic institutions, MIT was the most aligned with what we were trying to accomplish at the Hitachi Foundation. We had already built a strong relationship with the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research (IWER) at MIT Sloan, starting in 2010. We’d organized some roll-up-your sleeves, let’s-work-on-a-problem kinds of conferences together, and we saw what was possible as a result of collaborative efforts with excellent scholars. With the decision to close the Foundation at the end of 2016, our goal was to enable the Foundation’s focus on good jobs to continue. Sloan was a natural choice.
Another reason why starting the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative was intriguing to me is that throughout my career, there's been a disconnect between academic scholars and the business leaders, public policymakers, and foundation decision-makers I have known. For every academic paper or book that has an influence outside of academia, there are probably thousands that don't influence policy or practice on the ground.
Academics and practitioners often operate in separate, parallel universes. I found that troubling because I saw in my government, philanthropy, and nonprofit work that there can be fads in those sectors that people scramble to create or follow, and the fads often are not well supported with evidence.
I hoped that, by starting this initiative at MIT, we might bring the worlds of work and employment scholarship and practice a bit closer together. There certainly was strong interest in and capacity to do that through MIT Sloan Professors Tom Kochan and Paul Osterman, who were the two MIT Sloan faculty members that I knew the best at the time. It just seemed like the right environment to try this idea out.
You've done a lot of different things with the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative, including supporting research projects related to work and employment. In particular, there were three projects that you and the Initiative were involved not just in supporting but also in helping organize and plan. All three of them had a practical focus related to good jobs. I'm thinking here about the projects on worker voice, on job quality in various sectors, and on skills training. Tell us a little bit about those three projects and some of their key findings.
Dyer: Let's start with the sector strategy research on job quality. At the Hitachi Foundation, I was involved in the establishment of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which was an effort by several foundations to advance sectoral approaches to workforce development. Sectors matter: The circumstances that shape work in healthcare are different from those in manufacturing or in retail and hospitality. The National Fund for Workforce Solutions aimed to expand and nurture sector-based partnerships between business leaders and intermediary workforce organizations across the country.
At MIT, the opportunity was to delve more deeply to understand what is distinctive and what is common across low-wage sectors. While folks on the ground were solidifying these sector-based partnerships, we wanted to understand more about the intrinsic opportunities and limits to improving jobs in each of those sectors. Paul Osterman had a keen interest in this and led this project, inviting scholars with expertise in key industries—such as retail, manufacturing, trucking, and restaurants—to produce a collection of new papers that helped us to understand the opportunities for and the real limitations to quality jobs in seven sectors. This work underscored the significant differences across the sectors and the very real constraints that explain why so many of these jobs are not good jobs.
The project resulted in a book called “Creating Good Jobs: An Industry-Based Strategy.” We wanted it to be relevant to people on the ground while also making a contribution to the literature.
The worker voice project was the second major research effort. We've seen significant declines in union membership over decades and we know that the reduction in worker power has contributed to the growth in income disparities in the United States. At the same time, new forms of worker organizations are gaining momentum, outside of traditional union structures.
We decided to explore this shifting landscape by asking: What do workers want? What say do they have in the workplace now and on what issues would they like to have greater voice? A team led by Tom Kochan conducted a large nationally representative panel survey of workers to find answers.
This survey found that workers do want to have more of a say over their own work lives. They want to be engaged in decisions that affect them. Many indicated that if they were given the opportunity, they would likely join a union, but they also indicated that traditional unions are not the whole answer.
We did a similar survey of adult workers as part of the skills project led by Paul Osterman. This survey presents a portrait of the ways in which adults in the U.S. acquire skills. It found there is a lot of online utilization of learning opportunities. Also, our survey identified troubling racial disparities in who employers train: White workers are more likely to receive company-paid training.
It sounds like you brought questions that arose during your years in the foundation and policy world to MIT, and here you were able to connect with scholars with deep academic knowledge of those subjects and come up with research designs that marry scholarly rigor with those practice-oriented questions.
Dyer: That's right.
Another innovative project that you've been involved with at MIT Sloan is co-leading the design and launch of USA lab, an award-winning Action Learning class. Tell us a little bit about that class and why it seemed so important to offer at MIT.
Dyer: One reason I helped start USA Lab is that the U.S is in a period of enormous divisiveness. It became so apparent in the 2016 election, and MIT Sloan had an opportunity through its Action Learning program to move beyond Kendall Square and the tech world to venture into the middle of the country and see what's really going on.
In USA Lab, student teams focus on issues that are specific to a community and place while also illuminating some aspect of the American story and the roots of our divides. Community organizations in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas are hosts for teams of students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
The students work on a range of topics—from the need for affordable childcare to barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated individuals. The organizations that host USA Lab teams play a catalytic role in their communities: They are the brokers and conveners who pull together the community. Many of them are community foundations or community development finance institutions, but we’ve also worked with a county government.
The other reason I wanted to start the class is that I‘ve observed that effective business leaders know how to listen and learn from what's happening on the ground. A management education should include going out into the world to places that are unfamiliar to you in order to learn how to listen and co-create solutions with folks on the ground.
I saw USA Lab as an opportunity to address the divides that confound us and also to expand the contours of the MIT Sloan Action Learning program into community organizations within parts of America that are less known to many of our students. We have an excellent Action Learning program at MIT Sloan with precedent for this kind of course and lots of support in figuring out how to design it. We could not have done this without our colleagues in Action Learning.
Looking back on your experience launching USA Lab, what was a big lesson or learning from it for you—something that you wouldn't have predicted going in?
Dyer: I was originally quite nervous about MIT students going into unfamiliar communities; during this period of real hostility toward the “elite,” I worried about how well they would be accepted. It turns out that these worries were unfounded. Our students have been embraced. We do devote time in class to developing tools for listening, discovery, and co-creating solutions with the community hosts. It's been very rewarding to observe students as they discover the essence of these places and gain an understanding of the specific problem they are addressing in its wider community context. And then, when they uncover paths forward, it’s priceless.
It occurs to me that both in the three research projects we discussed and in USA Lab, you have been bringing together different worlds. In those big research projects, you were taking policy questions where you knew, from your work in the foundation world, that there wasn’t enough good information and then working with scholars at MIT to study those questions. Then in USA Lab, you're bringing disparate groups—community-based organizations, mostly in small towns and cities, and MIT graduate students—together. It's interesting to realize it’s a similar strategy of bridging between two groups.
Dyer: That’s right. I tend to be blessed and cursed with seeing the big picture and how it all connects. Sometimes that is overwhelming, particularly in a research setting.
One final question: You have looked at good jobs topics for a long time, from a lot of different angles. What do you think is the most important issue that people should be thinking about right now related to jobs and working conditions in the U.S.?
Dyer: There are a number of really important issues, and I cannot point to one that stands alone as they are so interrelated. We are in a moment unlike any I’ve seen, where many Americans are looking hard and with honesty at the policies and norms of behavior that have perpetuated poverty here in this country. We are examining our history and questioning present-day patterns of exclusion as we set our sights toward inclusion.
Looking at the horizon, a question that we’ve only scratched the surface of is the implications of artificial intelligence for jobs and work systems. As AI becomes increasingly adept, are we prepared to channel its power toward good jobs for humans? At MIT, the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future helped us to explore some aspects of this larger question. IWER is poised to take this exploration further. But we are still in early days.
This article is part of our “Work in Progress” interview series, which highlights recent and in-progress work on employment topics by researchers associated with the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research or other parts of MIT. Read the "Work in Progress" series.