Finding and maintaining work that pays a living wage is a crucial step toward escaping poverty. However, the jobs available to low-income, low-skilled workers frequently offer minimal pay and little opportunity for advancement. Jack Litzenberg, senior program officer with Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Pathways Out of Poverty Program, discusses in the following Q&A some of the strategies for helping these families succeed in the job market and build economic security. The interview was conducted by Mott Communications Officer Duane Elling.
Mott: Could you explain Mott’s interest in the areas of job retention and wage progression?
Jack Litzenberg (JL): That interest flows out of our program mission to “identify, test and help sustain pathways out of poverty for low-income people.” We believe that living wage employment can be one of those pathways, especially when it provides a career path that leads to better, higher paying jobs. That growing income then opens doors to other life opportunities, such as buying a home, building assets and furthering the family’s education.
But key to starting out on a career path is finding and staying with a job over time, which can be difficult for some low-income workers.
Mott: What are some of the challenges facing these workers?
JL: We’ve seen time and again that a lack of formal training and education can create significant barriers to living wage employment. Many career-oriented fields expect applicants to arrive with a basic set of work skills and experience already in place. Yet, because low-income workers often lack that background, prospective employers may pass them by.
For those who do find career-oriented jobs, other challenges can quickly derail their chances for success. A lack of access to reliable transportation and childcare, unexpected family emergencies and the like can mean time lost from work, which can result in job loss. And while many working families face such problems, low-income households often lack the resources and supports to do something about them.
Mott: How is Mott grantmaking helping the field meet those challenges?
JL: Our support in the area of sectoral employment is aimed specifically at job retention and wage advancement.
Sectoral employment programs focus on readying individuals for work in specific industries, such as health care or manufacturing. But many are organizing within those industries, bringing businesses together on issues of job training and marketing, as well as integrating necessary skills development into the curriculums of local schools.
“Many career-oriented fields expect applicants to arrive with a basic set of work skills and experience already in place. Yet, because low-income workers often lack that background, prospective employers may pass them by.”
— Jack Litzenberg
These programs also have a vision of economic development and seek ways to improve the career potential of traditionally low-paying jobs. For example, they’re collaborating with businesses to build career ladders through job training and education. Those structures can help someone move from an entry-level position of washing dishes in a restaurant to becoming a cook, or from performing housekeeping duties in a hospital to becoming a nurse.
Many are also working with industries to create workplace supports that address such employee concerns as transportation and childcare. Those strategies are key to helping low-income workers stay on the job, remain an asset to their employer and build a career.
Mott: What emerging trends are catching your eye?
JL: The role of job training programs as engines for public policies, particularly those that support economic development among poor families. This has three distinct paths: the first are calls for policies that improve access among low-skilled, low-income workers to good paying jobs. The second focuses on improving the wage scale of existing low-paying jobs. And the third seeks to create new jobs in sectors that offer career paths.
The field of sectoral employment also offers some promising lessons for traditional job training systems. Sectoral programs, by their very design, train workers to meet the specific needs of industry, which can dramatically improve outcomes for both. They acquire a deep knowledge of employers and industries; provide supports that help people stay on the job; and recognize the importance of long-term commitment to participants.
Mott: What will be Mott’s focus in these areas over the next few years?
JL: We’ll continue support for initiatives that inform public policy on the importance of developing a globally skilled, globally competitive workforce. We’ll also support initiatives that seek to expand access by unskilled and under-skilled individuals to a community college education.
The Foundation helped create the field of sectoral employment and we’ll continue that support into the near future. Specifically, we will fund initiatives that evaluate the impact of sectoral employment on job retention and wage advancement for low-income populations. We’ll continue to help improve and replicate successful sectoral practices, as well as seek the creation of supportive public policies. And, as the field matures, we’ll pursue additional ways to help low-skilled, low-income families take part in the American Dream.