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What Workers Want From Their Jobs Other Than Good Pay

Labor researchers say while wages are important, other elements can also help to recruit employees and keep them aboard.

When it comes to quality jobs that can attract and retain workers, it’s not all about the money. Predictability and the opportunity to advance and grow professionally are equally—if not more—important factors than pay, according to researchers. 

Kristen Harknett is a professor of social behavioral sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and co-director of The Shift Project, a study that focuses on service sector workers. In her research, she asked service sector employees what qualities make for a good job, and found that stability and pay predictability were top answers.

When employees have a set schedule and know when to expect a paycheck, they can more effectively plan their lives outside of work. This can mean more time for preparing meals or professional training or education, resulting in happier, healthier employees, Harknett said. That, in turn, benefits employers. 

“When we're thinking about workers who are in a customer-facing position, it's not hard to connect the dots and see that some of these practices, there really is something in it for employers,” she said this week during a panel hosted by Urban Institute’s WorkRise Initiative.

For state and local government leaders, the findings may be worth considering as they think about how to attract and retain talent at public sector agencies. The research could also provide valuable insights for state and local lawmakers focused on labor policy issues, like the minimum wage and paid family leave.

While work-schedule predictability can allow some workers to seek additional training or education on their own, for others it’s not enough, as language barriers or incompatible class schedules can prevent them from enrolling in programs that could advance their career, panelists said. 

That’s where employer-provided training comes in. 

As managing director of FSG Talent Rewire, Kimberly Shin worked with a large food manufacturer that often hired immigrants. On the factory floor, language barriers and cultural differences hurt job performance, Shin explained during the panel. 

The company decided to partner with an adult education organization to provide a variety of classes, including courses in English, financial literacy and U.S. citizenship. Employees who participated in these courses were more likely to stick around, and overall the company saw a 123% return on investment, according to Shin.

The public sector can help with these efforts by supporting partnerships with companies and training providers, particularly for small and mid-size firms that may lack the resources to provide training, said Shayne Spaulding, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. 

“There's a lot of evidence around the effectiveness of those kinds of approaches to supporting workers’ economic security and advancement,” she said. 

Ensuring employees have opportunities to advance their careers often results in less turnover as well.

Harknett pointed to In-N-Out Burger, a West Coast fast food chain. Three in four In-N-Out employees said they believe it’s likely they will advance within the company. Among food service employees covered by Harknett’s research, workers for the chain were more likely to say they felt satisfied with their jobs and planned to stay. 

While predictability and opportunities for upward mobility in the workplace are crucial qualities of good jobs, discussions about employee well-being are often dominated by wages. That’s likely because wage data is more widely available and easier to track than things like schedules, panelists said. 

“I do think that we should be paying more attention to schedules and advancement opportunities and the other elements of job quality that we know to be so important,” Harknett said. 

Molly Bolan is an assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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