“Millions of people in the United States have bad jobs.”
That’s what Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told the audience at the recent 2018 MIT Sustainability Summit, held March 9. These bad jobs, she explained, offer poverty-level wages and unpredictable schedules.
The problem Ton alluded to — an economy with too many bad jobs, too few good jobs to go around, and income inequality — is attracting increasing attention in the MIT community. One sign: This year’s student-led MIT Sustainability Summit focused on the theme of “good jobs for a thriving economy” and included a wide range of expert speakers and panelists from the worlds of business, academia, labor, policy, and nonprofits.
Conference organizers Hilary Gram MBA ’18, Catherine Wright MBA ’18, and Tiffany Ferguson MCP ’18 say they chose the good jobs topic both because they wanted to highlight the expertise of MIT Sloan faculty on the subject and because of the relevance to current politics, given U.S. citizens' rising discontent with stagnant wages.
Another sign of interest in the topic was the launch of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative at MIT Sloan in 2017. With seed funding from the Hitachi Foundation, this new initiative focuses on practice-oriented research and courses that explore questions related to the creation of high-quality jobs.
“As a society, we need to come together around our working future,” says Barbara Dyer, executive director of the Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative and a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan. “We need to build a society that creates lots of new opportunities for people to be successful in the world of work.”
MIT alumni — and the public at large — now have an opportunity to take an active part in this conversation. Starting March 20, Thomas A. Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research, will lead Shaping the Future of Work, a free online course offered through the edX platform.
In the course, which Dyer and Ton also teach, participants will learn about topics such as how the world of work is changing and the likely effects of technology advances on jobs. They’ll also take part in an exercise to identify the factors that will be most important to include in a new social contract governing work — what our society should expect from business, labor, education, and government to create an economy with greater shared prosperity.
The good news? An economy characterized by lots of bad jobs is not inevitable — as Ton can tell you.
Ton, author of The Good Jobs Strategy: How The Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits, has studied retailers. She has identified a set of management decisions that combine to form what she calls a good jobs strategy that makes it possible for even companies in retail — an industry with many low-wage jobs — to pay frontline workers more and still be financially successful. This good jobs strategy is not easy to implement, according to Ton, “but it is possible, profitable, and very much worth the effort.”
A version of this article originally appeared on the MIT Alumni Association's Slice of MIT blog.