Saving the American Dream: Companies Must Rewrite the Employer-Employee Compact

Work in America is evolving, and the changes that are taking place are having a dramatic impact on people and business.

By Cat Ward, managing director at JFF

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Although business is booming and demand for skilled talent is strong, many average Americans are struggling to find meaningful, well-paying jobs. Wage growth has stagnated and the cost of living is marching upward. On top of that, advances in technology are changing or even eliminating many traditional occupations. Many people worry that they may not be able to stay relevant in the labor market.

At the same time, corporate leaders are grappling with new challenges of their own. In addition to competing for talent like never before, they’re finding that customers and prospective employees are increasingly focused on working with and for brands that prioritize social responsibility, and with teams that fully reflect the diversity of their communities. In the background, technology continues to drive business forward.

This time of change presents corporate leaders with opportunities to build new solutions — solutions that benefit workers and businesses alike.

At JFF, our focus is on finding those solutions, sharing them, and spurring their adoption at scale.

To kick-start that process, we hosted conversations with more than 50 corporate leaders representing Fortune 500 companies from a wide range of industries, including technology, financial services, manufacturing, and more. The people participating in the discussions included corporate human resources executives, business operations managers, and corporate social responsibility officers from Amazon, Autodesk, McDonald’s, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Comcast, and other well-respected companies. Our goal: understand how they’re dealing with this new world of work and competition — and how they’re investing in the well-being of their talent along the way.

The conversations were invigorating, and they touched on a lot of promising opportunities — but one important lesson we learned is that we’ve got some real work to do.

Here’s a rundown of some of the challenges that came to light in our discussions.

We Can’t Wait

Colliding trends are forcing the issue of worker well-being to the forefront at many companies, and forward-thinking leaders know that change can’t wait. Our conversations elevated a couple of key points that drive home the urgency of the need for organizations and individuals to prepare for the future:

  • Everybody’s talking about the future of work, especially the changes that automation will bring. CEOs want plans for how their companies are going to adopt new technologies — and how their workers are going to adapt to the changes. The emergence of new technologies will create opportunities, but it will also involve a lot of change and will inevitably lead to worker displacement. Corporate leaders who understand what the future holds are shifting mindsets and actions to play more hands-on roles in helping workers navigate the changes that lie ahead.
  • A tight labor market is creating opportunities for skilled people from populations that are underrepresented in the workforce. As companies struggle to find talent, they’re looking beyond traditional recruitment practices. Innovative approaches like skills-based hiring and work-based learning are gaining momentum as ways to tap new pools of talent. These approaches create opportunities for people from underrepresented communities who have potential but may not have been recruited in the past.

Resistance to Change Is Real

We discovered a mixed bag when it comes to companies taking steps to address looming changes. Some are making good moves, but most efforts are uncoordinated and promising practices are scattered. Here are three points that expose the forces that have curbed corporate action but also reveal the way forward.

  • Business comes first. The leaders we talked to agree that it’s important to invest in the well-being of workers, but they argue that companies will only adopt worker-friendly practices at scale when there is solid evidence that doing so will have a positive impact on the business. Fortunately, JFF research shows that workforce investment yields business benefits — including cost savings, improvements in the company’s brand image, and increased productivity.
  • Leadership is the difference maker. The difference between companies that successfully prioritize investments in worker well-being and those that do not boils down to leadership. Workforce planning and worker well-being are C-suite priorities at forward-leaning, worker-centric companies.
  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and human resources (HR) teams must work together. CSR and HR professionals have shared interests when it comes to advancing worker well-being, but they don’t seem to be collaborating to the degree that they should be. In our conversations, we commonly heard deflections of responsibility through statements like “That’s an HR issue” or “That’s a CSR thing” and “That’s handled by our diversity and inclusion team.” The companies that do best on measures of worker well-being tend to collaborate well internally.

Good Intentions Must Convert into Meaningful Action

A wide array of corporate leaders have shown interest in taking action to advance worker well-being. But there’s room for improvement in the way companies as a whole respond to the challenge. Here are three trends our conversations revealed:

A group of changemakers is emerging, and they’re eager to join a community of like-minded leaders. Forward-thinking corporate leaders know that we need to look at the relationship between employers and workers differently, and they’re committed to being out front on the issue. Hailing from many different industries, various areas of corporate operations, and multiple levels of seniority, these agents of change are impatient for progress and are looking for a community of fellow practitioners where they can “lock arms,” learn from and support one another, and drive change.

Promising practices are taking hold . . .

  • Companies are actively recruiting from diverse candidate pools, and it’s widely recognized that diversity is a business advantage.
  • Businesses with large frontline workforces are investing in upskilling people who hold entry-level jobs. Many of those employers are expanding their benefits packages to include more skill-development-related offerings, such as work-based learning opportunities and even “outskilling” programs (training to prepare people for jobs at other companies that require highly sought-after skills).

. . . but change is not happening fast enough or broadly enough. We’re in an “early adopter” phase. For every corporate leader we spoke to whose company has an exciting, promising investment in worker well-being, there were several others who are stuck with stagnant practices because “That’s the way things have always been done.”

Most companies struggle to make it past good intentions and into meaningful action. What they need are proven approaches and some guidance on the steps to take first.

Good Work Is Underway, but We Have a Lot More to Do

We need movement at a much bigger scale. To help the 30 percent of workers who may be displaced by automation in the next 15 years and to reinvigorate the promise of the American Dream for workers across the country, we need real action from America’s corporate leaders. We must see bold, broad adoption of worker-friendly practices across Fortune 500 companies. This kind of action will inspire other, smaller businesses to enact change and will signal to people, policymakers — and everyday people and their communities — that there’s a new normal for how business should be done. If we get this right, we can inspire a new shared value: doing well by workers is not just good for the bottom line — it’s also the way we should work, the way we must work, and the way we will work.

The first steps will come from building a community where corporate changemakers can find one another, learn what works, and lead the way forward. That’s why we developed the Corporate Action Platform, a resource for a new breed of businesses we’re calling Impact Employers — companies that place worker well-being and advancement at the forefront, right alongside traditional business returns. Through our Corporate Action Platform, we’re accelerating the efforts of those Impact Employers by connecting them to curated content and resources, convening meetings and other events where they will be inspired to take action, and building a network through which they can join forces with like-minded peers who remind them they’re part of a broader movement.

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JFF (Jobs for the Future) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States.

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