Opinion: Never again should we accept the notion of non-essential workers

Thursday 08 April 2021

Article

It took a global pandemic to prompt society to reflect on the importance of work performed not only by healthcare and home care providers, but by delivery drivers, grocery store employees and other critical but modestly paid workers.

So dominant is the premise of a market-driven economy that it had become difficult to distinguish the wage we make from the value of our contribution. For a fleeting moment in March last year, we came to appreciate the practical and even the moral importance of basic jobs.

Speaking to many large companies in retail, leisure and other distributed service sectors, I have heard universally that engagement as measured by employee surveys saw a big jump a year ago. 

And despite distressingly higher prevalence of stress and mental health concerns as the crisis has continued, engagement has generally held up.

This has been due no doubt to the efforts most companies made to support people through changing working conditions, to intensify communications and to demonstrate empathetic leadership.

But it also demonstrates the significance of recognition and esteem. No longer was it just a job to pick in a warehouse or fill a shelf – it was part of a national effort to keep food on people’s tables. 

"Had we failed to make the connection between each person’s work and their participation in society? In our search for efficiency had we lost sight of the civic ends which our efforts serve?"

So many are the stories of heroic endeavour or ingenious problem solving. The frontline workers who literally risked their health and their lives to keep customers served. The technology and supply chain teams who found solutions within days to obstacles that previously would have taken years.

And yet leaders should reflect: what were we doing before? Had we somehow failed to make the connection between each person’s work and their participation in society? In our search for efficiency had we lost sight of the civic ends which our efforts serve?

I have spoken to many retail leaders who have found a new resonance in ‘purpose’ during the crisis and are committing to sustain it even into the recovery. 

Purpose need not be exclusively altruistic to be meaningful. It is more obvious, perhaps, to make the case for ‘essential’ retail such as nutritious food or health-giving pharmacy. And yet retail and leisure, for all of us, are part of what makes life worth living. 

Never again should we accept the distinction between essential and non-essential workers.

Treating yourself, giving gifts, looking good, making your home and following your hobbies need no higher justification than that they make people happy. And the workers in these sectors deserve the dignity of recognition for making that possible – now more than ever.

Of course, recognition is not enough on its own. It seems probable we are entering a round of wage increases.

Amazon may see leadership on minimum wage as a ‘no-lose’ strategy: if the sector responds then its more productive model will simply become more competitive. Uber drivers have been found to deserve the benefits of employees.

But automation and AI are leading to a decline in low-wage jobs. The ones that remain will be less likely to involve physical and manual tasks and will require socio-emotional skills such as focusing on customer help and advice. The motivation of purpose and recognition will become even more important.

“As higher-waged jobs become more complex and specialised, more workers will need training and education programmes to take this step”

Nearly all growth will be concentrated in higher-wage jobs. Retail has always been an industry in which socio-economic mobility is possible: the path from shopfloor to boardroom is well travelled. 

As higher-waged jobs become more complex and specialised – in technology or supply chain, for example – more workers will need training and education programmes to take this step.

There are many advantages to enabling the upward flow of workers into higher-waged positions. Genuine, customer-facing experience is invaluable.

Diversity goals will be accelerated by supporting job transition for women or members of ethnic minority groups. And for the economy, productivity growth will be boosted by moving workers onto faster upward career pathways.

The pandemic has accelerated these trends and offered us an opportunity to remember what is important. We must not let that pass.

This article first appeared in Retail Week, 30 March 2021

Find out more about Michael Jary, Senior Advisor

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