Employer practices

People First, Employees Second: Workers Reflect on What Good Jobs Mean to Them

Alexandra TammaroJuly 01, 2021

What makes a good job? As the economy reorients after the pandemic, this question comes with a fresh angle, one stakeholders in all corners—from employers and policymakers to workforce practitioners and workers themselves—are confronting as the labor market shifts.

To answer the question, Arne L. Kalleberg, Kenan distinguished professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, would also have us consider what makes a bad job, noting the opposite of “bad” isn’t necessarily “good.” Kalleberg and other experts brought their experiences and perspectives from across the employment landscape to a recent WorkRise/Urban Institute convening to explore job quality at this critical moment.

Panelists began the discussion with fundamental questions: How do we define good jobs? Can a universal definition have universal benefit? Jobs are as varied as the people who work in them, and what may work for one person at a specific stage in life may be unsustainable for another. Reaching consensus on what job quality is must include workers’ voices and preferences.  

Three workers and alumni of STRIVE New York, a workforce development organization, spoke about their experiences navigating employment as parents, as non–degree holders with substantial and diverse experiences, and as those caught in the middle of a public narrative about frontline workers that described them as both “essential” and “low-skilled.” Lakythia Ferby, STRIVE New York executive director, moderated the discussion.

The erosion of job quality pre-dates the pandemic. Jobs with low wages, few benefits, and unpredictable schedules are a critical component of our economy, but people working in them are often subject to burnout and other negative health outcomes. The lack of accessible and affordable child care, paid leave, and other family supports add additional burdens to working parents.

People first, employees second

Tiffany Martin-Lobban, a STRIVE alumna and mother of three, says good jobs must consider workers as people first, who—perhaps after facing unemployment, hardship, and uncertainty—may come to a new job stressed, tired, and hungry.

Proud to have been hired at an elite call center, Martin-Lobban was soon told her role as a mother wouldn’t be considered in her scheduling. After trying to make it work and getting burned out and mentally exhausted, Martin-Lobban had to leave. Since then, she’s become a parent coach, advocating for parents in similar situations and exerting for others what would have served her: voice and power.

Workplace protections and benefits that ignore workers’ lives are unsustainable and, ultimately, bad for business, as they may lead to decreased job satisfaction and increased turnover. Asking employees to separate themselves from important aspects of their lives limits their autonomy, another critical aspect of job quality, several panelists noted.  

Jose L. Soltero, another STRIVE graduate, sees room for improvement in how education and experience are used as screening tools during the hiring process, when specific academic requirements “automatically exclude individuals who have better skill sets but who, unfortunately, don’t have certification or a degree.” Degree or credential requirements may eclipse valuable skills gained on the job, keeping workers with extensive work histories from job opportunities, to the detriment of both sides.

Beyond fair wages to safety, autonomy, and accountability

Worker safety and well-being have taken on greater urgency during the pandemic, particularly for frontline workers in public-serving roles. Cleanliness standards quickly became part of most consumers’ expectations and experiences, but how safe workers felt—and whether they had to be physically present in the workplace—varied by job and sector.

Tanya Ndip, a STRIVE graduate with experience in human resource services in health care, said employment often requires prioritizing work over one’s own mental health. She said there were certain situations—such as mandated overtime—where she felt like saying “no” wasn’t an option and that a potential consequence was losing shifts or her job. “Protect your job, protect your shifts” was a predominant attitude, one that caused her health to decline and drove her to leave.

On the role of stress in workplace quality, Ndip said, “We do know that ‘customers are always right,’ but what we don’t always hear is that the employee is always safe from emotional and psychological trauma.” Holding employers accountable for worker health and well-being is a must, she said.

Soltero agrees. To him, a critical part of job quality is potential for growth, autonomy over one’s schedule, a sense of camaraderie, and a commitment to safety. Soltero says allowing employees to develop skills, including nontechnical “soft” skills, is an underestimated aspect of good jobs.

Above all, Ndip sees accountability as a starting point for building trust between employers and workers. Where someone can show up and say, “I choose to be employed” is where all parties benefit.

Lessons from an unprecedented time

How can we use this moment to catalyze better experiences and working conditions for marginalized populations, including those disproportionately burdened by the pandemic’s health and economic effects? The pandemic demanded creative solutions, but we don’t need to wait for public health emergencies to address systemic racism, inequitable professional and health outcomes, and barriers to upward mobility.

Lessons we learn now are progress toward healthier employment, sustainable and fulfilling professional experience, and better lives and greater autonomy for workers. A minimum job-quality standard that includes family-sustaining wages, worker autonomy, and room for growth can be a first step.

Martin-Lobban also sees the power and potential of the moment: “We don’t want to go back to the way it was. We need to find a different way, and we need to do it now.”

Learn more about worker perspectives on job quality:

What Do Workers Value in a Job? (blog post)

What's Important in a Job? An Analysis of What Matters and for Whom (report)

Gallup Great Jobs Reports:

How COVID-19 Affected the Quality of Work (2020)

Not Just a Job: New Evidence on the Quality of Work in the United States (2019)