A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Finding Realistic Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class

As Pat Kiley recently wrote about in his recent series Construction Craftwork as a Career, construction craftwork has seen a decline in Houston and around the country over the last few decades for multiple reasons.  One huge problem is the deterioration of the employer-employee relationship that's been spurred by the growing problem of misclassifcation of workers as independent subcontractors.  Wage theft by unethical employers also makes it very difficult to attract young people into the skilled trades.

On Construction Citizen's recent trip to Washington, I had a chance to sit down with Christine Owens, Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, to talk about what can realistically be done to fix some of these problems.

“I think any job has the potential to be a good job,” Owens said.  However, she said there are too many professions, including construction, that have reputations for low wages, unsafe conditions, and limits on training and advancement.  “The jobs don't have to be bad jobs but there are bad things associated with them that keep them from being good jobs.”

“We need to restore responsible and appropriate regulation in the workforce,” she said, adding that a minimum wage that is reflective of the true value of a minimum wage of thirty years ago would go a long way to create a solid floor for the labor market.  That's where sixty percent of job growth exists.  “This was a sort of policy agenda that came about in the New Deal, and it's really been eroded and etched away in the last 15 or 20 years.”  Owens continued:

“We need to a return to a notion of ‘we're in this together’ – that what is good for workers is actually good for employers too.  Having a workforce in which people feel like their investment in becoming better skilled will [result in] higher wages and better jobs is really a good business practice.”

Owens said it's not necessarily a function of government to create these jobs, but government can provide a backstop for employers who are trying to do the right things.  She pointed to the example of an ethical employer missing out on a government contract because their bid might be higher than an employer she would describe as a “bottom feeder” who doesn't pay decent wages.

“The good employer ought to get the public contract.  The good employer should get some privileging or preferencing in the bidding process that recognizes the fact that that employer is going to use these public dollars to create good middle class jobs.”

Watch the entire 15 minute interview and let us know what you think in the comments below.

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