Published on: July 13, 2015by Kevin Coupe
Fortune just ran an interesting piece by Rick Wartzman, executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, suggesting that "purpose, goals, and autonomy don’t mean much for American workers if they can’t earn a living wage." And, the fact remains, that too few do.
The article hinges on some very specific numbers. For one thing, while the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.3 percent, hourly wages remain stagnant - so while more people are working, even in an improving economy when many corporations are generating record profits and greater productivity, they aren't making more money. (Almost nobody argues that the unemployment rate is a completely accurate assessment of the nation's unemployment and under-employment situation, as many people simply have stopped looking for work and no longer are counted. Figure that in the coming election Democrats will say the "we can do better," and that Republicans will say "we can do much, much better.)
At the same time, Wartzman writes, " the ranks of Americans who are truly engaged at work are low, according to surveys. Gallup says that only about 30% of U.S. workers 'are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to' their jobs." (Wartzman notes that while other research and polling companies slice and dice the numbers differently, most of them tend to reach the same general conclusion.)
"Surprisingly," he writes, "few have connected the dots between stagnant pay and people muddling through work with little energy or passion. Instead, experts tend to focus on other ingredients that drive engagement: employees having a well-defined sense of purpose, enjoying ample autonomy and responsibility, finding ongoing opportunities to learn and develop, and being put in a position to use their strengths ... Some, however, are starting to assert that the stall in compensation is dragging down workers’ attitudes."
Here's what I take from the piece (and it reflects an argument I've been making here on MNB for a long time, though it does so with greater precision, as one would expect from a guy who runs the Drucker Institute).
Three of the nation's largest occupations are "retail sales clerks, cashiers, and food service workers," and many of the people occupying these jobs are customer-facing - meaning that they largely are responsible for the experience that patrons have in their places of work. And yet, these often are the folks who are not seeing their wages go up, which is why we are seeing a surge in organized efforts to increase the minimum wage at both the state and federal level, as well as to get companies to raise wages regardless of what the politicians do. (Some, of course, are doing this.)
I have a sister-in-law who likes to joke that "it is all about the Benjamins." And she's right, in that how one is paid reflects how one is valued. People can talk about corporate culture all they want, but that tends to ring hollow when people can't house and feed and clothe and school their children despite working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week.
I know people continue to argue that many or most people who work as retail sales clerks, cashiers, and food service workers don't need to support anyone on their pay because these are not career jobs, but it also seems clear that the structure of our economy has changed to the point where there are many people who have to do just that. And I happen to think that the culture is stronger when people who work 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week are able to house and feed and clothe and school their children, and that the culture is weaker when they cannot.
But I also continue to believe that the companies that hire these consumer-facing retail sales clerks, cashiers, and food service workers will do a better job, be more productive, have a greater sense of ownership, and create an environment that brings customers back if they have a sense that the business is investing in them, not just viewing them as a cost. It is about creating an environment - including an economic one - that helps them feel involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their jobs.
The long term net, I think, will be positive for companies that take this approach.
Wartzman's column was an Eye-Opener. And I was glad to read it as one of the first things I saw upon returning from vacation.
- KC's View: