Talking Points

The “Good Jobs” Debate Is Missing the Point

“Where have all the good jobs gone?” is a common refrain these days. Politicians of all stripes promise to “bring them back.”

“Good jobs” in this lexicon usually refers to good jobs for non-college workers, and it nearly always means factory jobs. The kind of job that paid (say) $30 an hour, supplemented with great benefits and a high degree of job security.

What people often forget is that these manufacturing jobs were so good because they were unionized. It’s largely thanks to the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, and their compatriots that blue-collar jobs paid so well.

But unions today are weak and unpopular—and anyway, manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back any time soon. Most new plants these days have more robots than human beings. And if you do manage to land a factory job, chances are you’ll be paid less than the veterans because of two-tier wage scales.

So what makes for a good job for non-college workers in today’s economy? As an article in Harvard Business Review recently argued, it’s just two things.

  • One element is decent compensation—pay at a level that lets a worker support a family. This doesn’t have to come in the form of high, union-scale wages, which often made companies uncompetitive in the global marketplace. It can take the form of stock ownership (through an ESOP or other plan), profit sharing, or both. When the company does well, employees share in the wealth they are helping to generate.
  • The other element is an environment of transparency, trust, fair treatment–and learning. Workers learn to understand the economics of the business, so they can think and act like owners. Companies learn to treat employees like partners, not like hired hands. A partnership culture redounds to everyone’s benefit: the company becomes more productive, and employees learn valuable skills that will stand them in good stead in their next job.

The quicker we forget about yesterday’s good jobs—and the sooner we implement the elements that make for today’s good jobs—the better off we will all be.