Service jobs should be — and can be — middle-class jobs – Zeynop Ton

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

Zeynep Ton, Professor at MIT Sloan School of Management

From Harvard Business Review

America is losing its one-time healthy middle class and desperately wants it back. But how? Some say reviving manufacturing jobs. Some say redistributing existing wealth. Some say a universal basic income. Academics are fond of upskilling and lifelong education. Even U.S. CEOs are now saying that they need to create more higher-paying jobs.

But what almost no one talks about is how we can improve the low-wage jobs — mostly in the service sector — that already exist. Even enlightened business and thought leaders often view these jobs only as a stepping stone to better jobs or assume that they are not “real” jobs that could ever qualify as middle-class work. But we can’t build a large enough middle class without improving these jobs.

Last year, nearly 42 million Americans, almost 30% of the workforce, had jobs in retail, food service, personal care, health care support, and cleaning and maintenance — all with a median hourly wage below $15. That’s a lot more people than the 9.1 million in production and the estimated 4.7 million holding technology jobs. For the last 10 years, the largest occupation in the United States has been retail sales, with a median hourly wage in 2018 of only $11.33. It is expected that between now and 2026, two of the fastest-growing job titles will be home health aide and personal care aide — with median hourly wages of only $11.63 and $11.55.

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Raising wages is the right thing to do, and doesn’t have to be bad for your bottom line – Zeynep Ton

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

From Harvard Business Review 

The “working poor” are a growing problem in America — one that is increasingly embarrassing to the corporate elite. Business leaders who are morally inclined to do the right thing should and can play a stronger role in solving this problem by raising wages to a level where their employees’ earnings cover the cost of living.

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, was recently stumped in a U.S. House Financial Services Committee hearing when California Congresswoman Katie Porter asked him what advice he could give to a constituent — one of his own bank’s tellers, who makes $2,425 a month and lives with her daughter in a one-bedroom apartment with a $1,600 rent in Irvine. Food, utilities, childcare, and commuting cost about another $1,400, leaving her $567 short every month. Dimon had no good answer.

Yet Dimon is one of a number of corporate leaders — others include Warren Buffett, Ray Dalio, and Paul Tudor Jones — who have expressed public concern that the version of capitalism that has allowed them to be so successful is not sustainable for our society. The data are daunting. Between 1980 and 2014, while the pre-tax income doubled for the top 1% and tripled for the top 0.1%, there was little change for the bottom 50%. In 2017, more than 45 million Americans worked in occupations whose median wage was below $15 an hour. Although wages increases have finally been accelerating, 40% of Americans are living so close to the edge that they cannot absorb an unexpected $400 expense—not much, as car repairs or dental work go.

For business leaders operating in settings like that of JPMorgan Chase, where profit margins are high and low-wage employees are a small driver of overall costs, doing the right thing morally is not even that risky. Some wage increases would even pay themselves by increasing productivity and reducing turnover — employees would be more motivated, less distracted with life problems, and less eager to find a better job. For those leaders compelled by the same moral argument but operating in businesses with low profit margins and a high percentage of low-wage employees, doing the right thing morally is still possible. But it requires a lot more work.

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The good jobs strategy – Zeynep Ton

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

From Acast. 

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Zeynep Ton is a Professor of Operations Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

She studies the retail sector and the way that some firms have invested in paying more and doing more for their workers. She studied firms like QuikTrip, Trader Joes, Mercador in Spain – she found that firms that treat their workers better achieve better results.

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Whole Foods CEO’s poor excuse for poor performance – Jose Alvarez and Zeynep Ton

Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Jose Alvarez

At a town hall meeting announcing Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, a Whole Foods employee had this question for CEO John Mackey:

“I have a question about Whole Foods’s commitment to those win-win-win-win partnerships with our suppliers, with our team members— and how that’s going to live on once this merger is complete.”

Mackey’s response was curious, to say the least:

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

MIT Sloan Adjunct Associate Professor Zeynep Ton

“I think, sometimes, our company’s gone a little bit too much team-member focus at the expense of our customers. And that’s one definite evolution that’s gonna happen. I love the passion these guys [Amazon] have around the customer. They put the customer first in everything they do and think backwards. And— we— we’re gonna be the same way.”

If Mackey thinks that investing in people is part of the reason for Whole Foods’s poor performance, he’s wrong. From what we see, the real problem is a lack of operational excellence. Whole Foods may be paying its employees more than competitors do, but it has not created an operating system that leverages that investment. You can’t put premium gas in a clogged-up engine and expect to win a race.

Whole Foods strikes us as an organization that doesn’t standardize where it needs to and doesn’t empower where it needs to. Five stores within a city may have five different people purchasing from the same local farm in five different ways. Their information systems are mediocre at best.  John Mackey’s own words about Whole Foods technology are useful here: “So I think that we can expect that we’ll go to the front of the class, eventually, in the grocery business, from … the class dunce to… the class valedictorian.”

Poor systems and lack of appropriate standardization mean lower labor productivity and higher costs. At the same time, frontline team members appear to have little empowerment to satisfy customers. One of us recently wanted to return a $3 Whole Foods reusable shopping bag that had broken the first time it was used.  You would expect the cashier to just exchange the bag for a new one.  Instead, she called for her manager to resolve the problem.  It was a waste of time for all, including the other customers waiting in line. Paying team members more than competitors do won’t pay off if you don’t empower them to make a $3 decision! Lack of empowerment reduces not only motivation but also customer service.

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MIT Sloan Expert Series — The Business Case for Good Jobs — Zeynep Ton

Zeynep Ton, MIT Sloan Professor and author of The Good Jobs Strategy, took part in a live conversation on how operational excellence enables companies to offer low prices to customers while ensuring good jobs for their employees and superior results for their investors. Also appearing on the program were Thomas E. Perez, U.S. Secretary of Labor and James Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco. The Business Case for Good Jobs is a part of the MIT Sloan Expert Series.