Strikes Spotlight Need for Better Routes to Family-supporting Jobs

Published aug. 20, 2013

Cowritten by Rachel Pleasants McDonnell & Deborah Kobes

In JFF's Building Economic Opportunity Group, we're focused on increasing access to family-supporting jobs, and work with a number of programs across the country that do a good job of training participants for high-wage, in-demand jobs. The recent series of one-day strikes by fast food workers (and the upcoming walkout planned for August 29) are poignant reminders of just how many jobs there are that don't pay anywhere close to a family-supporting wage. And while many of these low-wage jobs are described as entry-level, they tend to offer few opportunities, if any, to advance beyond that entry point.

One approach to addressing the problems of low-wage work is to provide a way out of these jobs. Many of JFF’s initiatives focus on moving more adults out of low-wage work and into family-supporting careers by making education and training more affordable and accessible. This allows workers currently stuck in dead-end jobs to move into fields with more opportunities for advancement. (These initiatives, such as Accelerating Opportunity and GreenWays, seek to accelerate the pace of training and provide adequate supports so that earning a marketable credential becomes a realistic goal.) Other initiatives aim to build better career ladders within the workplace, in particular fields such as healthcare, so that entry-level jobs truly are just the first rung on the ladder. JFF frequently works with colleges as well as employers to develop better pathways from low-paying positions such as home health aide into nursing positions or other better-paying healthcare careers–these strategies not only help workers, but often lead to better service and lower costs for participating employers.

Some organizations around the country have successfully figured out training and advancement strategies within the hospitality sector, which tends to employ large numbers of low-wage workers. Restaurant Opportunity Centers United, based in New York City and with locations in 10 cities, combines its advocacy efforts promoting a living wage and better working conditions with job training. Their CHOW Institute offers courses that advance workers along a career pathway either in culinary arts or in the front of the house (i.e., server, bartender, or manager). They are even partnering with local community colleges to connect the training to academic credit and advancement. The Boston Education, Skills, & Training Corporation’s Hotel Training Center and the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas have similar training strategies. They provide classes in hospitality in partnership with local hospitality-related unions, and they focus on placing their graduates in union hotels. All three of these organizations partner with high-road employers who pay living wages and benefits, and that promote their workers across a career pathway.

Additional funding for job training programs can help bring these training opportunities to more communities around the country. This career advancement strategy can have a huge impact by preparing a skilled workforce for those employers who value career workers. This can work particularly well when partnering with companies such as Costco and In-and-Out Burger that understand that high-road jobs are good for service industry employers.

However, only a small percentage of total workers are employed by companies that build their business model around providing workers with a living wage, benefits, and promotion opportunities. This kind of training strategy doesn't address the fact that in many industries, like hospitality, low-wage work remains the norm. And in some parts of the country, these are the only jobs available.

Is the only option for those currently working in industries like hospitality or fast food to find a better sector? The pathways to family-supporting work that JFF’s initiatives support are incredibly important for the large number of workers who currently lack other options, but we also have to remember that for every worker who advances out of a low-wage job, another one will be there to take his or her place. This week’s strikes demonstrate that job training and career pathway development are only two of the many approaches needed to support American workers and their families. For colleges, training providers, and organizations like JFF, partnering with employers, and encouraging them to invest in their current workers, needs to be part of the big picture strategy.

Photography courtesy of CareerEdge, 2011