With 8.4 percent unemployment (August 2020) and some 13.6 million Americans receiving unemployment benefits, the nation should review what we know about economic recovery, especially for the vulnerable among us.
Financial and social crises, plus automation create a complicated situation. Analysts expect that artificial intelligence and robots will eventually replace most repetitive predictable jobs. Similarly, companies often replace human workers with automated processes or outsource it to cut costs after a crisis. The pressure to maximize output and minimize costs makes these trend unlikely to change. That’s one reason why good alternatives are needed to minimize the suffering of displaced workers.
Another reason is the unevenness of a typical recovery. Even though jobs recovered across the American workforce after the Great Recession, not all occupations recovered equally. Unemployment rates in many occupations have remained the same or worsened. Many low-income families and individuals were unable to regain stable jobs that paid living wages. For example, from 2010 to 2018 Rochester, NY lost 48,000 manufacturing jobs and regained 40,000 jobs in the education, health, and hi-tech sectors. These new jobs offered much better wages and stability, but very few of the 48,000 manufacturing workers who lost their jobs were able to access the new positions available. These positions have mostly been filled by highly educated workers, often from out of town, whose arrival has increased the cost of living in the city.
Rochester is not alone. Many approaches to job recovery do not provide a long-term sustainable pathway to self-sufficiency. Some rely on quick placement. Although some low-skill occupations provide a quick and easy way to build an income, these jobs may provide needed some short-term relief, but do not provide long-term living wages and stability. In addition, living wages change according to family composition. An occupation that provides a living wage to a single individual does not allow a single mother of two to escape the cycle of poverty. When this mother takes a low-security job at the bottom of the pay scale, her family often ends up depending on public assistance for housing and food and will not have any buffer to protect them from homelessness during a personal crisis—or the next social crisis.
Some industries – like the high-tech sector – provide better-quality jobs, although there is wide variation in the quality and stability of jobs within sectors. In the food industry, for example, kitchen workers and waiters are among the lowest paid and most insecure jobs of all. But food and other industries have an increasing need for specialized logistics workers and pay those workers above living wages. Handling, moving, and coordinating food distribution requires specific skills that can be learned on the job and require no degree.
The most successful job training programs are based on careful analysis of the pay, skills needed, and projected growth of local job markets and the characteristics of the family or individual in need of the job. A single individual can live on a wage that pays between $12-$15/h in many regions, but a single mother of two needs three times as much to survive. Helping these two individuals get back on the job market requires different approaches. And, although some individuals may not be immediately prepared for a living-wage employment, some programs provide specialized employment assistance and progressive graduated pathways towards living-wage employment.
There are good examples of successful career pathways programs. The evaluation of the Pathways for Advancing Career and Education (PACE) program – funded by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), included results from nine programs, among them Chicago’s Carreras en Salud: A Bilingual Healthcare Partnership (Gardiner & Juras, 2019). Carreras is a career pathways program that bridges limited English-proficient individuals into stable, high-demand healthcare jobs (Copson, Martinson & Gardiner, 2014). The program matches a job-market need to address nursing shortage and the need for bilingual healthcare professionals, offering students seven different entry levels, with each level designed as a bridge to the next. Participants move through the program, beginning with the Basic Nursing Assistant module, then moving to Pre-LPN and LPN programs, progressively helping trainees to advance their skills, increase their wages, and improve their financial assets over a relatively short period of time.
It is necessary to rethink the approaches that focus only on quickly finding a job for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Many communities around the country are structuring training programs according to individual or family needs, helping them find living-wage jobs either outright or through supportive pathways. This is the only way to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.