Op-ed: Being a bad employer is never a competitive advantage

Nov 14, 2022

This op-ed originally appeared in the Crain’s Cleveland Business Forum on Jobs on November 14, 2022. Click here to read the original and explore the forum, the first in a series focusing on public policy issues that matter to Cleveland Business, funded by the Joyce Foundation.

By Bethia Burke, President
Fund for Our Economic Future

About a year ago, the Fund for Our Economic Future (the “Fund”) and its partners launched “Where Are the Workers?,” a major effort to understand what workers want as labor market competition reigned supreme. In support of our analysis, we surveyed nearly 5,000 adults and more than 600 employers.

In recent months, however, even as we continue to regularly receive invitations to present our findings, we have begun to hear some version of the question: As job growth slows and the potential for a recession looms, how much longer will employers care about what workers want and need? My answer: There is no labor market in which being a bad employer is a competitive advantage.

Yes, the significant talent shortages over the past two years have prompted many employers to pay more attention to worker perspectives than before and, as job growth slows, I expect this attention will decrease. But the talent crunch is still real, the silver tsunami demographers have warned about for years is here and happier employees are more productive anyway, so let’s keep caring.

Fortunately, many of Northeast Ohio’s employers don’t need much convincing. They want to be employers of choice, asking us, “What can I do?” While what makes a good job is an entire field of study, here are some ways to start:

1: Ask your employees what they want and need. A simple suggestion. Yet, of the employers who responded to our survey, though nearly 80% self-reported challenges attracting or retaining workers, only about 8% named having a way to regularly ask workers what they want and need as a top retention strategy.

Until employers ask, there’s no knowing what may be on their workers’ minds, but the results may be surprisingly simple to respond to. One employer recently tried this tactic and told me what her workers said they wanted: free parking and a bike rack. “That,” she said, “I can do.”

2: Increase effective wage. Real wages for the bottom half of earners haven’t increased all that much over the past decade. Almost half of survey respondents cited “pay too low to support a family” as an extreme or moderate barrier to finding or keeping employment for themselves or people they know. What could that mean? When it costs more in gas or for child care coverage than a job pays, for example, that job isn’t worth it.

Offering a competitive wage is, as one employer put it, simply table stakes to attract talent. Employers who have reached the upper limit for year-over-year increases, however, could look to other ways to increase effective wage by reducing the costs of getting and keeping work.

Near-term solutions may include offering tax-free transportation benefits or employer-funded ways to get to work like Share Mobility. This open-source tool, designed to inform site selection, estimates the average commute time and cost per worker to a job location. On the child care front, some innovative employers in Akron are looking into buying daycare seats for employees, simultaneously increasing the likelihood of finding coverage for their workers with children and decreasing the cost of the service to workers.

3: Offer culture and benefits that make space for flexibility and life outside work. And mean it. A friend of mine recently left the field of nursing. She told me “…no amount of paid time off is going to draw someone in if you can’t prove that you can use it, and, while you’re off, believe you don’t get called or guilted into overtime.” Whether it’s a flexible work schedule, unlimited vacation and sick time or the ability to work from home, it’s not enough to advertise great benefits. Workers need to believe they can use them.

To learn more, visit wherearetheworkers.com. In the meantime, be kind to your friends in human resources. It’s been a tough couple of years.