The Path to Good Jobs for Everyone

The Path to Good Jobs for Everyone

Photo by Aaaarrrrgggghhhh! under a Creative Commons license


Richard Kazis is a senior consultant on education and workforce policy to many national organizations, including the Brookings Institution, MDRC, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the New England Board of Higher Education. Kazis also serves as Interim President and Board Chair of The Institute for College Access and Success. Until 2014, he was Senior Vice President of Jobs for the Future in Boston.

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Kazis writes widely about community college reform; low-wage worker advancement; college and career readiness; and youth employment and training. He recently published a case study of the transformation of the City Colleges of Chicago for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. A graduate of Harvard College and MIT, early in his career Kazis taught at an alternative high school, helped organize fast-food workers, worked with labor-environmental jobs coalitions, and supervised a Neighborhood Youth Corps program.

“I met my wife-to-be, Jill Medvedow, at BMC in 1986,” Kazis says. “If that were all the benefit I ever received from the Center, it would certainly have been enough. But BMC has been a steady anchor for me through the years. I was fortunate to be a BMC resident at two very different stages in my work life, thirty years apart. BMC and the world that it has created, strengthened and nurtured has enriched my life immeasurably—and that of Jill and our children, too. We have made lifelong friends, shared profound experiences and conversations, danced and played poker late into the evening (blue chips five cents, red chips a dime) and learned much from residents, staff, and passers-through.”

Something is festering inside the American economy and we are seeing the effects all around us—opioid addiction, anti-immigrant fury, fragmenting families, pervasive pessimism.

The problem is simple: working-class Americans can’t find enough decent jobs.

Everyone knows this. It’s why Bernie Sanders almost upended the Democratic party, and how Donald Trump turned communities across the heartland from blue to red last November. Republicans invoke jobs as a smokescreen for cutting upper-income taxes and gutting environmental, labor and safety laws.  Meanwhile the left is gaining ground in many cities with the rallying cry of a $15 minimum wage.

This issue—which activates people of all political stripes and ethnic backgrounds across the US—should be at the center of the revival of progressive politics.  But that depends on offering working-class America a clear, practical, easy-to-understand path to better jobs and economic security.

This is the work BMC alum Richard Kazis has been doing for many years, first at Jobs For the Future and now as an education and workforce policy consultant to organizations such as the Brookings Institution and MDRC.

“When it comes to workforce training and education for careers, there’s a general depoliticized consensus about what good program design and delivery looks like; but when you start talking about where the labor market is headed—Will robots take all the jobs? Is the skills gap pervasive? Should everyone go to college? And who should pay for it?—the debate gets political very quickly,” notes Kazis, who co-authored (with Richard Grossman) of Fear At Work: Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment in the early 1980s, part of which was written at BMC.

Kazis offers a few thoughts on what a progressive agenda for workforce policy and education looks like:


  • Robust Public Role in Funding Education and Training—and Holding Providers Accountable

“The more we define preparation for career as a private good, the more it becomes your and my own personal responsibility to figure out what we need in order to move ahead and how we can get it,” he says.  “But ultimately education and workforce preparation is also a public good, and the countries that do a better job than we do (many of them in Europe) understand the importance of robust public support for regional systems for investing in human capital.”

Kazis notes that the public role needs to be not investment, but also accountability for quality and value. The explosion of student debt has put the spotlight on the dangers of public investment without accountability for results and consumer protections for students. The abuse and fraud perpetrated by for-profit colleges and career schools, mostly on low-income and first generation college-goers, is a case in point. The Obama administration worked hard to clamp down on the for-profit sector, which flourished because of the availability of federal student grants and loans. One of the new administration’s top priorities has been to reverse and weaken those protections.


  • Expanded Role for (More Effective) Community Colleges

“You can’t talk about workforce development without talking about public community colleges,” Kazis states, noting that these institutions, with campuses within 50 miles of pretty much every American, are the key for access to higher education and workforce preparation for low-income, minority, and first-generation college students. “Employers want people who are ready to hit the ground running with technical skills (like working with computers or high tech equipment) but also with 21st century skills including communication, teamwork, and problem solving.

This is what propels people up the career ladder, and “prepares them for jobs that may not exist yet. Community colleges are affordable, accessible, flexible institutions that are close to the ground—and are well-positioned to serve residents and employers efficiently.”

Of course, the pressures on these institutions are great: reduced state support; a shift to adjunct faculty to keep costs down. “On-line instruction is appealing as a way to expand access and reduce costs,” according to Kazis. “But all evidence shows that for low-income and first-generation college-goers, there is no substitute for high-touch contact with teachers, counselors and career coaches.”

“Community colleges have shifted in the past decade from the goal of increased access to a commitment to helping many more students complete,” he says. “That will require significant reform of curriculum, student supports, relationships with employers—and, ultimately, more sustainable funding for institutions and students.”


  • Making Workplaces into Places to Learn

“Economic security requires the skills and opportunity to move up from entry-level jobs. One way to promote advancement is to make workplaces better learning environments for everyone,” Kazis explains.  Unions, for instance, have long played a role in worker training and advancement, which has become more important and constant as technical skill requirements rise in many fields.

In Philadelphia, District 1199c of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees serves more than 4000 students each year in a partnership with local hospitals and other health care organizations.  Both union and community members pursue careers as nurses, medical technicians, health information specialists and childcare workers as well as coursework for college and workplace readiness, GED exams, English as second language and US  citizenship. “Not surprisingly, workplaces are often the best place to learn the skills and behaviors that make workers succeed in their jobs. And fellow workers can add great value, if workplaces are set up to be more supportive of learning.”


  • Fighting for Job Quality and Workplace Protections

Kazis cautions that workforce development, in school or the workplace, can only go so far in relieving the stresses of our unequal economy.  “Better pay, better conditions, better quality jobs. All these are needed to move forward.”

The economic anxiety many workers feel today goes beyond stagnant wages and underemployment. In large industries like retail and food service, work schedules, hours, and paychecks can vary widely from week to week, making it difficult to plan childcare, transportation, social time and family budgets. And, of course, this makes it impossible to attend classes that would help them advance their careers.

“This may explain why so many feel so insecure in an era of very low unemployment,” Kazis observes. He notes that while the federal government is unlikely to address this problem, cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and San Jose are leading the way in trying to reduce the unpredictability of part-termers’ work schedules.


  • And Don’t Forget Full Employment

Kazis notes he is frequently asked about the role automation, robots and artificial intelligence play in eliminating jobs and driving down wages.  He points to the work of economist Dean Baker, who decries the job-killing robot myth, which he says is “attractive to many people since it appears to pin the blame on inequality on the natural development of technology.”

“We’ve seen warnings that technology is going to kill jobs many times before” Kazis says, “—and the economy adapted and grew. However, there is a growing chorus of economists who say this time is different. “But it is too early to tell.”

In the meantime, though, the best prod for both better workforce preparation and better job quality is a tight labor market. “Policies to keep the labor market tight are critical right now,” says Kazis. “If robots and AI make this time different, then we may need to turn to a guarantee of some basic income, an idea that has serious proponents on both the left and the right.”