September 5, 2018

Three Recent MIT Graduates Focus on Improving Job Quality

Three MIT graduates from the class of 2018 are working to improve the quality of the jobs available to frontline employees in the U.S. Here's what these alumni told us about the work they’re doing — and why it’s so important.

Call it a sign of the times.

During a period of increasing concern about economic inequality and the proliferation of low-paying jobs in the U.S., several MIT graduates from the class of 2018 are working to improve job quality for low-wage workers. The Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan caught up with Jenny Weissbourd (MIT Sloan MBA ’18), Tiffany Ferguson (MIT MCP ’18) and Paige Boehmcke (MIT Sloan MBA ’18) to find out about the work they’re doing now — and why they think it’s so important.


Jenny Weissbourd
is a Senior Project Manager in the Economic Opportunities Program at the Aspen Institute. In 2018, she earned an MBA from MIT Sloan and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School of Government.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE AT MIT SLOAN: What does your new job entail, and what particularly interests you about that work?


WEISSBOURD: The Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program (EOP) advances promising strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income Americans succeed in a changing economy. I’ve followed and admired EOP’s research on workforce strategies and business practices that support quality jobs for many years, so I’m very excited to directly contribute to this work and learn from leading thinkers in the field.

In my first few months at the Institute, my primary charge is managing the Reimagine Retail program, which explores strategies to enhance job quality and improve mobility for retail workers. I’ll have the opportunity to work closely with retail employers, workforce practitioners, economic development and community development finance organizations, policy advocates, and public partners across the country who are testing new solutions. Over time, I’ll also be involved in several other EOP programs focused on connecting lower-income Americans to quality jobs, helping them build assets, and supporting microenterprise development and business ownership.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE: Why do you think the topic of job quality is such an important one right now?


WEISSBOURD: A growing number of workers find themselves in low-wage jobs without benefits or prospects for advancement. Multiple factors have converged to erode job quality: economic transitions that expanded the service sector as manufacturing contracted, the decline of labor unions, shifts in politics and policy that reduced worker protections and supports, etc. The consequence is that millions of employed, hard-working Americans are stuck in a poverty trap, living with enormous instability. Recent research from the Federal Reserve shows that 41% of Americans don’t have enough savings or cash to cover a $400 emergency cost. The topic of job quality matters because strengthening jobs is one of the most effective levers to bring people out of poverty.

A second reason why the topic of job quality is so important right now is that there’s a growing body of evidence that investing in frontline workers can improve firm performance. Zeynep Ton at MIT Sloan, for one, convincingly argues that retail and service businesses that combine investment in people with operational excellence see a high return on their investment in the form of improved productivity and retention. This is a perfect moment to be bringing this data to firms facing increasing competitive pressures and tight labor markets. Plenty of business leaders want to do right by their workforce but have succumbed to short-term financial pressures. Now is the time to show them that in the long term, providing more stable jobs can help them attract and retain talent and improve financial performance.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE: Did your experiences at MIT influence your thinking on this question?


WEISSBOURD: My experiences at MIT deeply influenced my thinking on this question. Taking courses in operations management — and particularly Zeynep Ton’s course on operations in the service industry — helped me articulate the business case for investing in workers. My finance courses helped me see how financial market dynamics pressure firms to prioritize short-term cost-cutting, particularly the reduction of labor costs through practices like subcontracting. At the same time, Gita Rao’s Impact Investing course and my experience on the workforce strategies team in MIT’s impact investing training program showed me how capital can be redirected to shift power to workers and disinvested communities. Data analytics and technology courses helped me think critically about the future of work, while Institute for Work & Employment Research courses like Paul Osterman’s seminar on labor market economics helped to place that narrative in its historical context.

Most importantly, I found generous mentors in Tom Kochan and Barbara Dyer of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative, who spent many hours talking with me about labor history and levers to improve job quality. In the fall of 2017, I did an independent study with Tom and two of my classmates, Megan Larcom and Jeremy Avins, that I think about daily in my new job. That project emerged from a research project at MIT Sloan on worker voice, which showed that a growing number Americans want more voice at work, even as unions decline. As a follow-up to that research, we asked: What innovations are bubbling up on the margins of the traditional collective bargaining framework to rebuild worker voice and power in America? We researched diverse organizations from worker centers to digital organizing platforms to rating sites like Glassdoor. My conversations with these groups and with frontline workers led me to believe that despite all its challenges, the 21st century economy also presents new opportunities to advance economic justice.  



Tiffany Ferguson is a Community Development Analyst in the Regional & Community Outreach department (R&CO) of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. She earned her Master in City Planning from MIT in 2018, and also attained the MIT Sloan Sustainability Certificate.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE AT MIT SLOAN: What does your new job entail, and what particularly interests you about that work?


FERGUSON: Every Federal Reserve Bank has a regional community development and outreach function, instated on the heels of the Community Reinvestment Act legislation passed in the late 1970s. While each Reserve Bank conducts this work in different ways, our collective mandate is to promote and support economic growth and financial stability in low- and moderate-income communities in our respective districts.

When it comes to issues of economic opportunity and work, it is hard to avoid the hard truth that there are fewer 'good jobs' than there used to be. Just a few years ago, the R&CO team at the Boston Fed started asking how they could direct their efforts toward shifting this reality and raising the floor for all workers. The job quality initiative was born to counter the expansion of low-wage work by improving the quality of existing low-wage jobs and promoting the creation of new, good jobs.

My work involves developing a strategy for our business research and engagement efforts. As part of a multipartner initiative we’re excited to be unveiling in the coming months, I am currently spending a lot of time thinking through ways to convene and engage employers toward redesigning elements of their core business to enhance the quality of the jobs they offer.

This work is completely uncharted territory for the Bank, not just the Boston Fed, and we are thinking very creatively and strategically about why we’re doing this and what success would look like. Personally, I'm excited to be part of a rising chorus of folks imagining a new paradigm for employer engagement — where we’re asking for real place-based partnership and collective action to build economic resilience in communities that need it the most. We're trying to create new ways of thinking about social responsibility and accountability to all workers, and shed this assumption that only some workers deserve certain benefits and supports, while others are left to cobble together a life that often includes multiple low-wage jobs, sometimes supplemented by public benefits.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE: Why do you think the topic of job quality is such an important one right now?


FERGUSON: Working at the Fed, I read research and commentary daily about how strong the economy is, yet it is empirically difficult to say what's keeping workers from benefitting from the economic gains we're seeing nationally. I'm not an economist, but I believe job quality is central to the discussion of what's at play. While unemployment is low, the conversation can’t stop there. We have to examine the jobs people are actually working in and how those opportunities help or hinder their overall economic resilience.

Even more crucially, there is a conversation we need to have about how we value some workers over others and whether the world we have is the world we all want to live in. Are we okay with the fact that economic mobility and security is predicated on winning the ‘good boss lottery’ (as David Rolf of SEIU 775 often says) and the rest just have to live with being unlucky? There was a time when our society had very different answers to that question, when we saw the fruits of the 20th century labor movement that gave rise to the American middle class.

Job quality helps us get at these deeper values questions once again and forces us to reckon with the structural drivers accelerating such drastic wealth and income inequality.  From my previous work, I’m confident that there is no shortage of strategies, tactics, and thoughtful leaders out there trying to address these issues. The fact that the Federal Reserve is poised to enter this domain could be very powerful.  


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE: Did your experiences at MIT influence your thinking on this question?


FERGUSON: MIT absolutely influenced my thinking! It was important for me to see and work with management scholars and labor economists who were just as passionate about the topic of economic justice and inclusive economic development, yet were drawing on different sets of skills and theories than what was more organic to me as an urban planner. While I focused my studies predominantly on urban and economic development in African cities, I found many good transferrable ideas about the issue of work and inclusive economic development that are useful for rethinking community and economic development in the US.

The vigor with which people across MIT were contemplating these issues very much gave me the confidence to pursue a job where I could put some of my hunches to the test: Could we really get employers to move on improving job quality proactively? Before MIT, I would have surely been tepid about that prospect. Now, I'm optimistic and confident that what we're doing at the Fed is a worthwhile learning opportunity for the field at a time when the field desperately needs more examples of unlikely business champions stepping up to redesign and rethink their own conceptions about work and the people they employ.




Paige Boehmcke is a Senior Program Manager at Jobs for the Future (JFF), a Boston-based nonprofit. She earned her MBA from MIT Sloan in 2018.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE AT MIT SLOAN: What does your new job entail, and what particularly interests you about that work?


BOEHMCKE: I work on two different teams: Knowledge Management (KM) and JFFLabs. For KM, I design processes that enable program staff to build on lessons learned, support innovation, and work more efficiently. JFFLabs is JFF’s innovation engine, and, as in a true startup, I work on a little bit of everything. Right now, I’m focused on business development to support our Work-Based Learning Acceleration Cohort and the $1 Billion Wage Gain Challenge.

I feel very fortunate because I got to write my own job description. During an internship I did at JFF, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do next in my career, and created a document about how my values and skills aligned with different jobs based on informational interviews. I felt sheepish about this idealism, but when our COO called to say JFF might be able to hire me full-time, the document served as a foundation for a job description that really fit me. Specifically, I was able to carry over and expand some KM projects from my internship and leverage my background in startups to take on a bigger role in JFFLabs.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE: Why do you think the topic of job quality is such an important one right now?


BOEHMCKE: Despite increasing economic productivity, real wages for average workers have stagnated since the late 1970s, and a recent analysis said wage growth was negative this year after accounting for inflation. Right now, we have a huge opportunity to support higher wages and improve career advancement by investing in workers. I think people are finally coming to terms with the magnitude of the problem, and the Good Jobs Institute, JFF, and other teams working on improving job quality are leading the way.


GOOD COMPANIES, GOOD JOBS INITIATIVE: Did your experiences at MIT influence your thinking on this question?


BOEHMCKE: My experiences at MIT definitely influenced my thinking on job quality and how to effect change. The class that shifted my perspective the most was Paul Osterman’s class “Power and Influence.” I didn’t know anything about social movements before this class, and the idea that people were thinking strategically about systems change was totally novel to me.  

I was also able to take seminars linked to the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research where we read a lot of foundational research on job quality and workforce systems. This background has given me context to understand new research by my colleagues at JFF.

---Martha E. Mangelsdorf


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