This post was originally published by WestEd’s Center for Economic Mobility.

By Sterling Smith

In this blog, we discuss strategies for bridging the gap between prevalent, low-wage jobs and good jobs that address quality of life and earnings. The blog also highlights a new initiative that aims to address barriers adult learners face while putting them on pathways to good jobs.

The job market can mystify job seekers and educators, but ask either and they can likely talk at length about the current real estate market. Both the job market and real estate market impact our daily lives and have experienced significant shifts over the past few decades, driven by technological advancements, changing demographics, and socioeconomic factors. By examining these parallels, we can better understand how the job market has changed and how this impacts job seekers and educators.

What Makes a Job a Good Job

Much of the current conversation about the real estate market is dominated by the unavailability of affordable housing, just as many individuals in today’s job market struggle with the lack of good jobs. While searching for both jobs and housing, many people primarily consider financials—although dollars and cents are far from the exclusive factor when choosing either. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Good Jobs Initiative has a framework of eight principles that comprise a good job. Outside of providing workers with a living wage, the framework includes

  • skills and career advancement;
  • organizational culture;
  • empowerment and representation;
  • diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility;
  • benefits; and
  • recruitment and hiring.

These principles have direct impacts for job seekers and educators and are important for holistically evaluating what job seekers may want from an employer. In the trucking industry, for example, a study in the journal of Workplace Health & Safety found job turnover was related to issues such as job expectations, long hours away from home, and lack of benefits, among others. While jobs have different requirements and people have different preferences, for educators and job seekers, a more comprehensive approach toward evaluating career opportunities and educational pathways enables a more efficient labor market and reduces time and costs for students.

Living wages, however, dominate the discussion around what makes a good job. The Living Wage Calculator, developed by Amy K. Glasimer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, defines a living wage as the following:

“A living wage is what one full-time worker must earn on an hourly basis to help cover the cost of their family’s minimum basic needs where they live while still being self-sufficient.”

The basic needs referenced in the MIT Living Wage calculator include childcare, food, health care, housing, internet and mobile, transportation, civic engagement, other necessities, and income and payroll taxes. Living wages vary based on location and family structure, highlighting the need for both job seekers and practitioners to consider the regional labor market information and living wage data in decision-making.

Take Los Angeles County, for example: in a family of four with two working adults, each adult needs to earn an hourly wage of $33.24 or $69,139 annually. In comparison, for the same family in Fresno County, each adult needs to earn an hourly wage of $26.79 or $55,723 annually.

Where have all the good jobs gone?

The shortage of good jobs can be likened to the shortage of affordable housing. A number of confounding factors have led to what is called the polarization of the labor market, where middle wage jobs have been eclipsed by growth of high-wage and low-wage jobs. This polarization is reflected in the makeup of our economy. On the low end of the pay scale is the leisure and hospitality industry, which accounted for about 6 percent of jobs in the United States at the beginning of 1950. By the beginning of 2024, that figure had nearly doubled (to 11%). At the higher end of the pay scale, professional and business services saw an even larger gain (from 7% to 15%). Meanwhile, middle skills jobs like manufacturing dropped to a quarter of their prior figures (from 30% to 8%).

Economists like David Autor, Lawrence Katz, and Melissa Kearney argue that the polarization of the labor market can be partially understood through technological advances and the outsourcing of jobs internationally. Other factors have impacted good jobs, including wage stagnation, where workers’ wages remain little changed when accounting for inflation. Wage stagnation has particularly impacted workers in the lower- and middle-levels of the job market. This has coincided with the precipitous decline in the share of workers belonging to a union, which fell by half between 1983 and 2023 (from 20% to 10%), even though studies on unions show that union members have increased benefits and a wage premium between 10 percent and 15 percent. On the bright side, both wage stagnation and union membership have seen some gains recently, for example, union membership increased by approximately 200,000 in 2022.

How can education systems design bridges across the polarized job market?

Home ownership can feel out of touch for so many, just as securing a good job can be. A college degree continues to be one of the most reliable pathways to securing a good job, with bachelor’s degree graduates typically earning $1.2 million more over their lifetime than workers with a high school diploma. However, if individuals don’t have funds for a down payment on a home or the savings to cover the cost of tuition and living expenses for several years, the only option is to take out sizable loans. A quarter of people over the age of 25 have attended college but have not earned a bachelor’s degree. If colleges want to help more adults cross the chasm between prevalent, low-pay jobs to better options, they will have to redesign the way they engage their communities. For example, to help adults navigate to jobs that better meet their goals and dreams, colleges need to understand the characteristics of jobs in their region and the specific skills and needs of people in their communities. This understanding enables colleges to work proactively to support students across the institution, from advising to wraparound services. Colleges will also need to identify ways to help adults move efficiently through training options to reduce the out-of-pocket and opportunity costs of going back to school.

WestEd’s Center for Economic Mobility is helping turn these ideas into action by supporting a new initiative that is jointly offered by the California Community Colleges (CCC) and the United Domestic Workers (UDW).

Domestic workers provide in-home support to children, the elderly, and people who are disabled. These jobs require long hours and physical strength but do not pay a living wage. Domestic workers who are not part of a union often lack health care and do not have consistent schedules, two key elements of what makes a good job. The UDW members who are participating in the initiative are predominantly women of color over the age of 50, many of whom are not fluent in English.

To help UDW members identify academic programs that will help them make progress toward their goals, WestEd examined jobs that require similar skills, do not require a bachelor’s degree, and continued to be in high demand through both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. This information was shared with the colleges participating in the initiative at daylong design sessions where they learned about their regional labor markets, the characteristics of UDW members who live near their colleges, and their interests. Educators identified related programs at their colleges and determined the types of supports that would foster success, like offering English as a Second Language courses that teach medical terminology. Importantly, educators moved beyond traditional labor market analyses that look narrowly at projected job openings and wage thresholds. For example, for some UDW members, preparing for a medical assisting position may be an attractive option. While the job does not pay as well as health care positions that require more training, it will provide a consistent schedule, daytime working hours, health care benefits, and the opportunity to sit while working. This work is being done with a data driven and proactive approach to provide support for members, where UDW and the colleges are coordinating on barriers, including transportation, computer and internet access, and course materials.

Balancing Jobs, Education Pathways, and People

Solving the affordable housing crisis requires innovative solutions that address the supply of housing and the barriers to building and financing. Improving access to good jobs requires equally innovative solutions that build pipelines to good jobs and remove barriers for job seekers. Targeted programs done in partnership with community organizations, such as the UDW and CCC partnership, serve as one example for engaging historically underserved populations and adult learners. Not only are these solutions impactful for individuals, they are key to preserving American competitiveness and productivity. For researchers and educators, solving the good jobs crisis requires data-informed approaches that go beyond our historical understanding of good jobs and are reflective of the populations we strive to reach.

Sterling Smith is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd. Sterling specializes in the intersection of postsecondary education and labor market outcomes. His work includes helping institutions understand how to design and implement programs that are reflective of their regional economy and using a data-driven approach to institutional planning. Sterling is a first-generation college graduate passionate about economic mobility for learners and reducing barriers for underserved individuals.