The Future of U.S. Jobs Looks Bleak. Unions Are the Answer.

Heidi Shierholz September 5, 2019

New data shows a grim outlook for U.S. jobs. The answer is more unions. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

We were just hand­ed a wake-up call. New­ly released num­bers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics project that six of the ten occu­pa­tions expect­ed to have the most total job growth over the next decade pay less than $27,000 a year. Three of those six are low-pay­ing jobs in the restau­rant indus­try. Even more strik­ing is the con­cen­tra­tion of low-paid health­care jobs at the top of the list, with per­son­al care aides at num­ber one and home health aides at num­ber four. These jobs are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly held by women and by peo­ple of color.

The low earn­ings in these fast-grow­ing jobs pro­vide a grim glimpse into what the future of work in the Unit­ed States will look like if noth­ing changes. But this future is not ordained. These jobs pay poor­ly because we allow it. Weak labor stan­dards (such as a low fed­er­al min­i­mum wage and weak over­time pro­tec­tions), weak enforce­ment of these stan­dards, and labor law that does a poor job of pro­tect­ing work­ers’ right to union­ize, all mean employ­ers have the pow­er to sup­press work­ers’ wages. This will con­tin­ue to be the case unless we, as a soci­ety, make dif­fer­ent choic­es — choic­es that empow­er work­ers and give them more pow­er in their workplaces.

For those who might respond that these low-paid work­ers should just go to col­lege to get a decent-pay­ing job, the new BLS data has an answer for you. In 2028, only 27.2 per­cent of jobs will be in occu­pa­tions where a col­lege degree (or more) is typ­i­cal­ly required. In oth­er words, even in nine years, a col­lege degree won’t actu­al­ly be required for a huge share of the jobs employ­ers will need work­ers to do. If every­one gets a col­lege degree, those non-col­lege jobs will sim­ply be filled by col­lege grads. Put yet anoth­er way, col­lege can­not solve this. Unless you’re will­ing to write off almost three-quar­ters of the labor mar­ket as unde­serv­ing of a decent job, we need anoth­er approach. We need to make sure even those 72.8 per­cent of jobs that don’t require a col­lege degree are good jobs.

The good news is that we know how to do that. We must imple­ment strong labor stan­dards, strong enforce­ment of those stan­dards, and reform labor law so that work­ers who want to join a union are able to do so. As we think about these dif­fer­ent choic­es for our future, it’s worth not­ing that man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs weren’t always good jobs — in fact, they were often ter­ri­ble, and dan­ger­ous. Union­iza­tion changed that. Union­iza­tion could do that for the fast-grow­ing jobs of the future, too.

Hei­di Shier­holz is Senior Econ­o­mist and Direc­tor of Pol­i­cy at the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute. From 2014 to 2017, she served the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion as chief econ­o­mist at the Depart­ment of Labor.
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