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Posted by on Jun 29, 2018 in business, Craftsmanship & Manual Labor, Economy, Work | 0 comments

The Good Jobs Advantage (Speech Text)

The Good Jobs Advantage (Speech Text)

 

Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us to think about good jobs, and how business and nonprofit partnerships are renewing the trades. A particular thank you to our speakers and panelists tonight, and special gratitude to Karla Nugent for hosting us at Weifield Group Electrical Contracting, a fitting location for our topic today. And thank you for allowing a writer, entrepreneur, and former pastor to address you.

Why are we here today?

First, businesses can’t find enough people to work in the trades. Wages are high. Demand is soaring. But we can’t find enough people. The National Association of Homebuilders reported that in July of 2016 there were 225,000 open jobs in homebuilding, the highest level since 2007. Last August, the Associated General Contractors of America found that 85% of Colorado construction companies were having a hard time filling hourly jobs.

What happened? When did working as a carpenter, welder, or electrician drop off the map as a viable option for America’s youth? In this iconic 1932 photo, “Lunch atop a Skyscraper”, the story that Americans largely believed was that these were the people who built America. One question we must ask is, How do we recover the dignity of the trades?

Second, nonprofits are finding that society isn’t working for 2/3 of Americans. America has always prized itself as the land of opportunity. But today, for many that vision is fading.

Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton and his wife, fellow Princeton professor Anne Case, have found that suicide rates have been on a decades long rise. They coined this “deaths of despair,” and found that the “suicide belt” – a run of states in the West with high suicide rates – runs right through Colorado.

Here’s what the stats show: you’re more than twice as likely to kill yourself if you only have a high school degree rather than a college degree.

And only about a third of Americans have a college degree. In short, life is working out pretty well for the college educated, but has steadily deteriorated for those without college degrees.

Nicholas Eberstadt’s book Men Without Work shows that from 1948 to 2015, the percentage of prime age men in the workforce dropped from 85.8% to 68.2%, a rate lower than it was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. So, people that could be working are choosing not to and are instead dropping out of the workforce.

These growing class divides are causing anger, especially in rural America. The American dream is intact for 1/3 of Americans; and splintering for 2/3s of Americans.

Our nonprofits are seeing this, and trying to move more people into career track jobs. But this is hard work. Housing issues. Racism. Broken Families. Addiction. Mass incarceration. We see huge challenges in American life, especially for our underserved communities. Jobs are there, but our civic fabric has been crumbling.

Third, what binds together businesses and nonprofits today is we share a common belief that a good job is the surest way to get somebody out of poverty, and keep them out of poverty. It’s also the best way to build a sustainable, profitable business.

I’m going to come back to that idea. And I’m also going to kick us off this afternoon with three, very practical tips you can apply to your business tomorrow. But first, by way of trying to solve these problems, let me speak briefly about the stories we tell ourselves about our work, why I believe they’re broken, and why they’re SO critical to workforce development.

A Story about Business

Let me start off by addressing that top 1/3 of America, those with college degrees. These are the people who are leading businesses today, and probably the majority of people in this room.  

In other contexts, I’ve spoken at length why I believe business is inherently good. It provides the goods and services we need, the jobs we depend on, and the wealth needed to afford those goods and services.

Yet as I see it today, the purpose of business has become either “mere profit or my personal success.” It tends to ask only, How can I personally be successful?

The problem is that it tends to look at people, both customers and employees, as a means to the end. It uses people to serve money, rather than uses money to serve people. This gets us stuck. We see people like interchangeable parts of a machine – and so we build systems that move people in and out. High turnover is built into the cost of doing business. It’s because our story about the purpose of business is distorted.

Yet as a person of Christian faith, I believe the purpose of business is linked to the great commandment: to “love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Business is a way to love and provide for our neighbors. The view of business broadens its purpose to serving many stakeholders:  including investors, owners, and customers, but also employees and communities. The key question becomes: how can I serve? And what role can my business play in the broader flourishing of this community?

Faith leads us to a story about business that evolves from serving mere money to serving people. And, when people are served, long term, those companies are more profitable.

A Story about Work

Now let’s talk about the rest of America, the 2/3 of Americans without college degrees. The story about work is very different. It’s not about achievement. It goes like this: work is painful. Work is just something I have to do until I make enough money and don’t have to work anymore.  This is not everybody. But for many Americans, work is more about survival than pleasure, and they’d rather not do it.

The stats bear this out: Gallup says nearly 70% of Americans are disengaged from their jobs.

Where does this idea come from? Take the example of Pandora’s Box, from Greek mythology. The story goes like this: Zeus told Pandora not to open the box, and Pandora was so curious, she stole the key and opened it. And out come sickness, crime, envy, hate, and worry – evil. You know what else came out? Work!  Work was a curse. For the Greeks, the highest life was that of philosophers, who thought about ideas all day. Manual labor was for slaves.

But let me contrast that story with the Hebrew origin story. In this story, God creates the physical world in six days, calls it good, and directly says that it was work. In the book of Hebrews, God is once called an Architect and Builder of the heavenly city. And when the invisible God wanted to show himself to the world, he became a tekton. A craftsman. Jesus was a carpenter, and possibly a stone mason.

One story says manual labor is for slaves. The other says manual labor is the work of the Son of God!

Let me share with you an observation from much of Colorado’s workforce development conversation today. We’re still trying to motivate people with just money. It goes like this: you can make more money than your college-educated peers, so get a job in the trades.

This won’t work.

We all want to know that the work itself we’re doing has worth. We all want to know we’re making a contribution to the human story with our lives.

Justin Hales was an electrician’s apprentice here at Weifield. Here’s how he described his work: “Two years ago, they put me on the platform at Union Station. I would lay out the floors, locate everything, like a switch or outlet on the wall. “When you turn your pipes, make them uniform—that’s art.” He pauses. “It probably goes unnoticed to the average person, but we see it. We take pride in our work.”

The story we tell about the meaning and value of work is critical to renewing the trades.

Now, let me give you three things you can practically use as business leaders who are looking to solve the labor challenges in Colorado’s construction market today.

  1. Attracting talent with just pay is no longer enough. It requires a culture shift toward building companies that benefit all stakeholders.

The labor market is too tight, and everybody is now offering higher paying jobs. This is just enough to get you in the game. But what will distinguish you from your competitors?

Let me use an example not far from home: our friend Karla Nugent, who is hosting us today. Years ago Karla decided to have a community impact with Weifield. They started to give philanthropically to four areas: the less fortunate, women, children, and veterans. They also did staff volunteer days, where her employees would spend time volunteering on the clock. It gave her entire company a sense of ownership, a sense that it’s for employees, that it’s about something bigger than just making money.

They also started working with community nonprofits to fill their own labor shortages, which we’ll hear about later this afternoon.

Businesses need to satisfy investors and customers. But I think employees are the critical element in business success. 

Co-founder of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher put it well and simply: “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and our customers take great care of our shareholders.” Happy employees mean happy customers. This creates happy investors, which means business can create more value for our communities.

People will be attracted to work at a company with a strong sense of mission, purpose, and community good.  Nobody wants to believe that their work is only about making you – or even themselves – money. It must go deeper.

Attracting talent with just pay is no longer enough. It requires a culture-shift toward building companies that benefit all stakeholders.

  1. Attracting the right talent also requires a culture-shift toward designing and investing in good jobs.

Let me share another story with you. I was speaking with a bright woman who does workforce development in Colorado. She expressed to me what fine work they do to prepare people through pre-apprenticeship programs for careers in the trades. Here’s what she told me: 

“The real problem is not in the training, but in the companies that hire them. I’ve seen far too many construction companies treat new employees like just a pair of hands – hours are terrible, there’s no chance for advancement, workplace culture is toxic, and benefits are scarce. We need companies who not just hire people for dead end jobs, but create good jobs where people can find a hope and a future.”

That is, some jobs are actually bad jobs that can hurt, not help, people’s lives!

Wow, strong words. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a new movement afoot. Zeynep Ton’s books The Good Jobs Strategy, Jim Clifton’s The Coming Jobs War, and some of the best research on workforce development put out but the Pinkerton Foundation – which my bright friend Dan Kaskubar at Activate Workforce Solutions alerted me to – points to the companies who are re-thinking how they design work in order attract loyal, high quality talent. The key elements of a good job are:

  • Wages sufficient to reach the middle class
  • Stable, yet flexible schedules
  • Benefits
  • Healthy workplace culture
  • Opportunities for advancement
  • Pride in their work

This is not only a recruiting and placement question: this is a question for the top business minds in America. How do we create profitable models, and win the ever-narrowing war for talent? Job quality matters deeply.  

Some Colorado companies are investing in people only dedicated to supporting their employees

A quick example: This is Adrienne Tafilowski. Her job title is Care Team Culture Director at L&R Pallet, a Pallet company here in NE Denver that employees over 80 refugees from Myanmar. She was brought on by her boss James Ruder originally to support his employees, the majority of whom are Burmese immigrants. She does things like connect employees to services at nonprofits for needs ranging from transportation to financial counseling; when there are family issues she finds support; they even have a staff soccer team.

As a result, L&R Pallet is winning. Their annual retention number dropped from 300%-400% average annual turnover rate – to 30%. Their culture changed from being self-described as “toxic” to “a family.” A good job for frontline employees is intimately connected to the overall health of the business.

  1. Finally, attracting talent requires that we participate in and support the entire workforce development ecosystem. 

An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. In short, in ecosystems, each part needs the others. 

The problem is, today we tend to just think about our own needs. We have to think outside of our organizations and strengthen the entire workforce development ecosystem if we’re going to build strong businesses that serve the 2/3 of Americans who are suffering.

Businesses create jobs and the wealth we all need to support our families; governments set the rules of the game, and establish a fair playing field; nonprofits represent the voiceless and connect people to opportunities and critical services; churches deal with the spirit, and the renewed heart. We need each other.

Historically, business and government have a tense working relationship. But right now, we need government to work on issues like the cliff effect in order to support employees inside of businesses that are earning too much to receive government support, but not enough to be self-sufficient.

Nonprofits are often seen as junior partners – or ignored. But they are the key advocates for the poor in American today. If we don’t give a voice to the voiceless, all of our workforce development initiatives will come to naught.

And I even believe religion must have a seat at the table. The Princeton economists I cited who have studied “deaths of despair” said they believe the key driver is a “spiritual and moral crisis,” where people lose the will to live. People are moral and spiritual creatures. If we don’t’ look at core beliefs, core wounds, and deep inner healing, our workforce will always feel less than human while at work. We must allow our churches, mosques, and synagogues a place at the table.

Though we don’t have to become faith-based, assuming everybody shares our believes, I believe we can all become faith-friendly. This means we don’t exclude people’s deepest held beliefs but invites them to the table as a core element of a rich, full life.

Again, I’d like to use our host tonight, Weifield Group Contracting, as an illustration. They have lots of jobs to be filled, but in the last 12 years, they’ve grown from a new company to over 300 employees. Here’s what’s interesting: I see Weifield everywhere in our civic ecosystem – at functions that don’t directly benefit Weifield,  like charity fundraisers, Denver Business Journal events, and Denver Institute gatherings. They actually care about the community for its own sake. And you know what happens, people are attracted to Weifield. A top place to work in Denver is also a top notch company.

Weifield Group is a living example of a rule I’ve found to be just as true in the business sector as in our charitable giving: Give and it shall be given to you.

A brief summary:

  1. Attracting talent with just pay is no longer enough. It requires a culture-shift toward building companies that benefit all stakeholders.
  1. Attracting the right talent also requires a culture-shift toward designing and investing in good jobs.
  1. Finally, attracting talent requires that we participate in and support the entire workforce development ecosystem.

 

This speech was originally given on April 5, 2018 at the Denver Institute event “Good Jobs: How Businesses and Nonprofits are Partnering Together to Renew the Trades.” 

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