“The United States has a jobs problem—not enough well-paying jobs to go around and not enough clear pathways leading to them” says CURS Interim Director Nichola Lowe. “Skill development is critical for addressing this employment crisis, but there are many unresolved questions about who has skill, how it is attained, and whose responsibility it is to build skills over time.”
In her new book published by MIT Press, Putting Skill to Work: How to Create Good Jobs in Uncertain Times, Lowe, a professor of city and regional planning at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells the stories of pioneering workforce intermediaries—nonprofits, unions, community colleges—that harness this ambiguity around skill to extend economic opportunity to workers at the bottom of the labor market.
An argument for reimagining skill in a way that can extend economic opportunity to workers at the bottom of the labor market.
Skill development confers shared value to both workers and employers because it lies at the intersection of their respective interests. Connecting skill to economic inequality, Lowe calls for solutions that push employers to accept greater responsibility for skill development. She examines real-world examples of workplace intermediaries throughout the United States, exploring in detail the work of manufacturing-focused organizations in Chicago and Milwaukee, and a network of community colleges in North Carolina that coordinates training for biopharmaceutical manufacturers.
“As workforce intermediaries help employers reinterpret skill, they also convince them to implement inclusive work-based systems that extend family-sustaining wages and better working conditions across the entire workforce,” notes Lowe. With renewed policy emphasis on skill development, these opportunity-rich solutions can be further expanded—ensuring workers across the entire educational spectrum contribute skills that drive innovation forward and share the gains they generate for the twenty-first century workplace.
The book engages a compelling counterargument put forward by other institutional labor scholars: that we simply need stronger labor laws and regulations, along with robust union representation, to improve job quality standards, with skill playing a limited role. Lowe argues that inward facing institutional strategies—designed to cross the threshold into the firm and change workplace practices from within—are the other side of the institutional coin: critical for getting firms to behave in the way that external institutional pressure and regulatory actions hope to achieve.
“Admittedly, I finished the book before the results of the 2020 presidential election were known and thus, before this time when there is a greater possibility for strengthening national labor laws and worker-supporting regulations, but my hope is this book will inspire even further coordination between advocates of progressive policy change and workforce intermediaries, by offering a reimagined politics of skill,” says Lowe.