Employer practices

A Research Agenda on Good Jobs and Economic Mobility

Pamela J. Loprest , Demetra Nightingale, William J. Congdon, Molly M. Scott , Batia Katz, Jessica ShakesprereMarch 24, 2021

This post is the final in a series devoted to exploring the elements of what makes a “good” or “quality” job and understanding the relationship between job quality and economic mobility, that is, the ability to advance and increase earnings in the labor market. These posts will elevate key insights from a new body of work from the Urban Institute that develops an agenda for research on how stakeholders, including policymakers, employers, advocates, researchers, and practitioners, can accelerate economic mobility among low-wage workers through elements of job quality. This post outlines priorities for a research agenda on job quality and economic mobility; other posts explore a new framework for defining good jobs, evidence on job quality elements that facilitate economic mobility, taking a racial equity lens in improving access to good jobs, what workers value in jobs, and a new agenda for research on job quality and mobility. To learn more about this project, visit Building America’s Workforce.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy has shed millions of jobs—many of them in low-wage sectors adversely affected by stay-at-home orders and vulnerable to forces that predate the pandemic, such as automation and telework. As the economy recovers and jobs return, many consider this to be pivotal moment to improve the quality of jobs so all workers can achieve economic security and economic mobility, both of which have proven elusive for too many workers.

Both public- and private-sector efforts to create good jobs need to be informed by evidence and insights from stakeholders aiming to connect workers to opportunities in the labor market. In addition to an extensive review of the literature, we convened three stakeholder workshops last year to gather ideas for what a job quality research agenda to inform policy and practice should include. Worker advocates, employers, labor market researchers, government officials, and philanthropic leaders shared recommendations at these workshops, two of which were held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (For a full list of participants, please see this brief.) Based on our own research and expert recommendations, we propose the following priorities to advance a research agenda on good jobs.

1) Develop new measures of working conditions, business culture, and job design to understand how they affect mobility

To design better jobs, we need knowledge on how different job elements affect a variety of worker outcomes, including health and well-being, financial security, and long-term mobility. In our framework for defining good jobs, we proposed five broad categories of job qualities: pay, benefits, working conditions, business culture and job design, and on-the-job skill development. Specifically, we propose developing new measures of working conditions, business culture, and job design elements to understand how these elements affect workers. These new measures can then be added to surveys of workers and employers to yield insights about not only worker experiences but also the kinds of jobs that facilitate or inhibit positive outcomes. Scheduling predictability is an example of a working condition element for which measures have been developed and added to surveys, yielding critical insights on work scheduling and its impacts.

2) Study social, economic, and workplace contexts for job quality

We also need to know more about how social, economic, and workplace contexts—including nontraditional employment relationships, such as those experienced by contractors—affect the quality of jobs. As we noted in a previous post, occupational segregation and discrimination have prevented Black and other workers of color from accessing jobs with higher pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement. In a recent survey about preferences, women and workers of color were more likely than men or white workers to say they value attributes of high-quality jobs, which may indicate they value job qualities they currently lack. A deeper understanding of how job quality elements differ across gender and racial categories can help target solutions for eliminating barriers to accessing good jobs.

The ability of workers to influence their jobs through collective bargaining, greater autonomy or control, or other forms of input and representation (broadly known as worker power and voice) is another mechanism by which job quality can be improved. But more research is needed on how different models of worker power and voice can influence job quality and design and, ultimately, worker outcomes, including economic mobility. For example, a recent survey of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic notes the role of unions in securing workers protective safety equipment, paid leave, and COVID-19 testing. Other studies could focus on whether giving employees greater control or input improves retention, job satisfaction, and productivity.

3) Build the data infrastructure necessary to study worker outcomes

As we note in a previous post and research brief, we found limited empirical evidence demonstrating causal relationships between different aspects of job quality and economic mobility. We developed a theory that mobility may be directly facilitated by job elements focused on new skill acquisition, such as on-the-job training, career pathways, task diversity, and new work experiences, and indirectly facilitated by elements aimed at boosting workers’ well-being, financial security, productivity, and labor market attachment. But ultimately, we need to create the data infrastructure to test out theories and mechanisms for how mobility occurs.

Longitudinal surveys are essential to tracking long-term outcomes of individual workers over time, yet most surveys contain limited information on job qualities or characteristics. (Our own analysis of job quality data in the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics did not conclusively link specific qualities to earnings growth.) Adding job quality measures or questions to existing longitudinal surveys or linked datasets such as the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program would help establish associations between workers, employers, and job elements closely associated with increased earnings. Understanding these associations will help workforce practitioners, employers, and advocates better target interventions for improving job quality.

Employers themselves are also an underutilized source of data on job quality. Although their data are proprietary, employers may be willing to share data on job elements and their workforce with researchers to pilot strategies for addressing job quality challenges. Although many businesses recognize both the ethical and economic imperative of a “good jobs” strategy, many don’t have the evidence they need to change business practices to improve jobs.

4) Develop additional measures and analysis of economic mobility beyond earnings

Earnings growth is a fundamental measure of economic mobility, but we need additional information about how workers advance their careers beyond simply increasing their earnings over time. Career advancement is another outcome for which limited measures or data exist. We need additional, more precise measurement of how job quality elements and business practices, such as promotion and other human resources or talent management policies, can help workers advance their careers—even when no formal career pathway exists. One approach could concentrate on sectors with high concentrations of workers in low-wage jobs, such as retail, food service, construction, and certain health care professions, and researching workers’ access to elements that could advance their careers. This approach has been used in studies of employer practices in the retail sector, which employs large numbers of women of color in frontline, rather than managerial, roles.

5) Analyze trade-offs workers make in choosing one job over another

We know each job consists of a cluster of elements, the effects of which are not easy to isolate and analyze on their own. Workers may make trade-offs in choosing a job with one set of elements over another to suit their personal circumstances. For example, there is some evidence that workers are willing to give up higher wages to avoid short-notice scheduling. Designing studies that examine trade-offs through natural experiments or other research methods could help us better understand the trade-offs workers make and the impact of those trade-offs on worker outcomes, including economic mobility.

In conclusion, we may never recover all the jobs that have been lost during the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. But now is the moment for laying the groundwork for creating jobs with qualities that both enable workers to experience economic security and well-being in the here and now and create pathways for their economic mobility in the long term. Though we have more evidence on the former, the latter warrants further exploration and investment. We hope our body of work examining job quality and a variety of worker outcomes, including economic mobility, can be a guide for future research and collaboration between policymakers, employers, advocates, practitioners, and the research community in the movement to create good jobs for all workers. 

Read all the posts in our series on job quality and economic mobility:

How Do We Define “Good Jobs” and How Do They Affect Worker Well-Being?

Do Good Jobs Promote Economic Mobility, and If So, How?

Who Gets What Job? Taking a Racial Equity Approach to Improving Job Quality

What Do Workers Value in a Job?

A Research Agenda on Good Jobs