With urban economies rebounding and business reopening, it is time for new economic thinking. Particularly troubling is the standard “skills-mismatch” explanation for rising inequality, which rests on a deeply flawed notion that workers are held back because they lack in-demand skills or the right educational credential. For decades, skill has been used as a convenient scapegoat, placing the blame for wage stagnation on individuals and educational institutions while masking deep-rooted, more insidious employer practices that suppress wages and keep quality jobs out of reach for many workers, especially workers of color.
Until recently, this skills-mismatch explanation has dominated mainstream policy discourse. It has resulted in a frenzied rush to survey more businesses in an attempt to measure with greater precision the skills they need and to revise training programs accordingly. It has emboldened business leaders—including powerful lobbying associations, such as the US Chamber of Commerce—to criticize training supports offered through public education systems, including community colleges. Their self-serving argument is that public-sector workforce development is woefully inadequate and must be revised through new credentials and better curricula. The idea that the skills of low-earning workers must improve so that they—and the nation—can remain “competitive” matches well with our standard characterization of innovation, in which highly educated technologists and innovators are given the bulk of the credit for social, economic, and even environmental progress. This perspective on innovation obscures the contribution of the frontline workforce; when these workers are mentioned at all in the discourse on innovation, it is to advance a misguided assumption that new technology will lead to their permanent displacement.
The pandemic economy has brought to light the failings of this skills-centric logic and the deeper sources of inequity that it has long obscured. Several influential economists have reversed course, no longer blaming skill- and job-destroying technological changes for the hollowing-out of the American middle class, shifting their focus instead to unchecked globalization, along with a raft of policy and institutional actions that undermine working conditions and eviscerate worker rights, both home and abroad—threats that skill-based solutions will do little to resolve. Prominent think tanks are putting their weight behind this growing critique as well, with at least one recently removing the term skill from their program title. Once sidelined accounts of systemic and structural racism by civil-rights activists and scholars are coming to the fore, providing undeniable evidence of racially biased and intentionally exclusionary standardized skill assessments and work-related skill requirements. They help document the way in which coded language of skill is used to justify decades of racial occupational segregation and wage suppression, also masking the hard work, productivity and ingenuity of black people, indigenous people, and people of color.
Combined, these threads represent a crucial turning point in the national debate over economic inequality, reorienting our gaze to the real problem of contemporary labor markets—a widespread failure by industry and business to create quality jobs and support career-building opportunities, combined with nearly a half-century of pro‑business “neoliberal” policies that have taken the pressure off employers to uphold and extend job-quality standards and commitments.
For those of us that have long felt discomfort with the standard narrative that stagnating wages and working conditions are a simple skills-mismatch story, this is a victory. And yet it is also a defining moment for constructing a new politics of skill. The alternative is not to erase skill entirely from the inequality narrative. Instead, it is time we reimagine skill and how policymakers can use it to strengthen the institutional infrastructure that is needed to deliver better quality jobs to more workers.
In my work, I challenge the dominant view of skill and the innovation imperative that lies beneath, featuring the creative remaking of skill by workforce intermediaries. In studying a handful of pioneering worker-supporting intermediaries in cities and metro regions from Chicago and Milwaukee to Cleveland and Raleigh–Durham, I have discovered that their treatment of skill is vastly different from the standard policy narrative and with much more to offer to job-quality standards and increased access to better work alternatives. These intermediaries—which include nonprofits, union affiliates and community colleges—recognize that skill can play a critical role in rebuilding an urban middle class and, this time, one that is inclusive of communities of color—but only when it is harnessed to change and improve employer behavior, rather than simply to prepare the incoming workforce.
For these workforce intermediaries, employer engagement starts with a focus on hiring decisions, aimed at coaxing firm owners and hiring managers to cast a wider net when recruiting new employees. Key here is the intermediary’s ability to match job seekers with employers through pre‑employment screening and assessment services. In that capacity, however, intermediaries do not simply act as agents of employers, as most for-profit staffing agencies would do. Rather, they meditate the hiring process to support less-educated job seekers who might otherwise be overlooked and thus excluded from quality employment opportunities.
That means getting employers to relax stringent hiring requirements, looking past the standard résumé and well beyond educational credentials. Drawing heavily on conversations with incumbent workers, intermediaries move employers and top-level supervisors through a cognitive shift, broadening their understanding of who may be able to fill vacant positions and who can bring value to the workplace. Then, as intermediaries help employers gain greater appreciation for less-visible skills and transferable experience, they also draw attention to the need for restructuring existing workplace practices to support ongoing skill-development opportunities.
This often involves the harder task of helping employers change organizational routines and practices to ensure the firm can support and retain these newly hired workers, either by instituting formal work-based training programs or implementing better supervision techniques to foster new capabilities and nurture a nascent employment relationship. The goal of the intermediaries also pivots from softening initially rigid skill requirements to identifying problematic management practices that can undermine career advancement, or, worse, lead a newly hired worker to hastily resign. Although this work is more hands-on and intensive, it relies on foundational elements cemented during the initial hiring phase. Here too, ongoing conversations with a wide range of incumbent frontline workers prove critical, providing intermediaries with a collection of narratives from which to identify signs of worker dissatisfaction or deep-rooted tensions that can be targeted through further action.
The intermediaries I have studied employ these strategies in tandem, treating more inclusive hiring practices and inward-looking organizational improvements as two sides of the same coin, equally vital to the ultimate goal of strengthening employment opportunities. But these intermediaries use an important reinforcing strategy as well: they engage employers in a deep moral reflection over responsibility for skill development, both immediate and long-term. They help employers move beyond standard representations of skill, making it less of an individual prerequisite to secure work and more of a shared common good that is produced and reproduced through collective and social processes at work. With this step, intermediaries ensure that skill and work become inseparable, and, in further strengthening that connection, they set the stage for advocating greater improvements to work itself, even as they continue to push stronger skill-development opportunities within it.
The intermediaries I document initially arose in response to perceived skill shortages on the part of small and medium-sized employers in their respective urban economies. Each has taken advantage of periods of labor-market tightening in the 1990s and 2000s to engage firm owners in negotiations around skill and to advance innovative, enduring solutions that change within employer organizations. What emerges is a broad reinterpretation of skill—not narrowed to an individual attribute that is fixed, quantified, plug-and-play, but advanced as a collective resource that is evolving and ambiguous, shaped and reshaped through the dynamic interplay of different perspectives, experiences, and pressures facing workers and employers alike.
Many scholars and workforce practitioners are uncomfortable with this uncertainty, so they seek greater clarity and precision through better skills assessment and measurement. But I argue there is power in skill ambiguity: it allows workforce advocates—and not limited to those I have studied—to cross the threshold into the firm and move employers through a transformative process to enhance the work experience of economically vulnerable workers and job seekers. In this regard, uncertainty around skill is not a problem to be hastily fixed or resolved; it is generative material that institutional actors can use to keep the interests of frontline workers and their employers in closer alignment, ensuring work is more fulfilling and rewarding, while also contributing to higher productivity and enhanced innovation.
Economic recovery at the workplace
Acute labor shortages across US cities raises some initial hope that employers will finally step up to the job-quality challenge chipping away at decades of rising US income inequality and wage stagnation. And some employers have recently acquiesced in response to the so-called “2021 Great Resignation,” raising wages and offering hiring bonuses in an attempt to satisfy workers that now balk at low-paying, poor-quality job offers.
Yet, in isolation, these reactive measures are no substitute for more encompassing and forward-looking workforce commitments by employers that entail ongoing investments in work-based learning systems, formalized internal career pathways, and steadily progressing wage increases, among other family-sustaining supports. Market forces alone are unlikely to compel employers en masse to correct course and embrace these supportive strategies—but neither can we expect blunt policy mandates in isolation to guarantee long-lasting economic and organizational change.
We need reinforcing institutional solutions that meet employers where they are, but don’t leave them there for long. It is here where the generative power of skill comes into play—creating an opening for institutional actors to shape plans for business recovery and growth, while pushing higher job standards that ensure that those changes result in a far better workplace.
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