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Chapter 1 The Potential and Limitations of Career Ladders The United States used to be a country where ordinary people could expect to improve their economic condition as they moved through life. For millions of us, this is no longer the case. Many American adults have a lower standard of living than they had as children in their parents' homes. As they move into midlife, fewer now see the dramatic income gains that characterized the World War II generation. On the contrary, job insecurity has become common across the economic spectmm. Layoffs, once thought to be a risk only for blue-collar workers, now frequently hit managers and technical workers (such as engineers). In the service sector, precarious employment is endemic. We have come to accept as the norm that people will change jobs and even careers several times in a lifetime-and not necessarily for the better. For the most educated and well connected, these transitions may offer opportunities, though even for the elite they sometimes result in downward mobility. For those in low-skill jobs, opportunities for advancement at one's place of employment-or in the move from one employer to the next-are increasingly rare. In the context of welfare reform, this means that few of the millions ofpeople who have moved from welfare to work have moved out of poverty. This book is about restoring the upward mobility of U.S. workers. Specifically it is about the one workforce-development strategy that is currently aimed at exactly that goal-the strategy of creating (or re-creating) not just jobs but also career ladders. Career-ladder strategies aim to devise explicit pathways of occupational advancement. The challenge is more complex than it may seem. Although job responsibility and earning levels tend to correlate roughly with skills, enabling people to move up from entry-level jobs is not just a matter of educating and training them. Often there is no pathway for low-wage workers to 2 CHAPTER 1 advance through a progression of more responsible and better-paid jobs as they gain skills and experience, for the simple reason that there are no more intermediary jobs for them to advance into. In many industlies the middle rungs of what ought to be or used to be a career ladder are simply missing; there are well-paid professional or managerial jobs at the top and dead-end jobs at the bottom-and few if any positions in between. Elsewhere, work that could be defined as professional or paraprofessional, with skills, salaries, and career trajectories to match, has been broken down to be performed instead by low-wage, high-turnover employees. As a result, careerladder programs usually must be directed as much toward encouraging employers to restructure the workplace as toward helping workers obtain needed training. Moreover, since employers organize the workplace the way they do in response to a variety of factors, any attempt to create career ladders must take account of those factors-from the competitive environment in which an organization does business to the labor shortages, skills mismatches, and geographic limitations that constrain it. Thus the success of career-ladder strategies is far from a sure thing. Whether a career-ladder strategy will have the impact its advocates hope for on the national economy as a whole, and on the earnings of American workers overall, is even less certain. This book explores the promise and limitations of current career-ladder programs in the hope that a greater understanding of both will bring us closer to solving the problems these programs mean to address. Career-ladder programs can increase wages and create more satisf)ring jobs for low-wage workers. But to succeed, they need to be supported by complementary regulatory and workforce development policies and income subsidies. Further, significantly more employers need to be convinced that this approach is in their self-interest. So far, the nation's job-training and worker-education programs only minimally support career advancement as a goal. From employers to local, state, and national economic development policy, we have a long way to go in creating opportunities for all workers to move up in the new economy. Dozens of career-ladder programs have started up around the country over the last ten years or so. All attempt to counteract the national trend toward low-skill, low-wage jobs by identifYing pathways people might follow to gradually advance into better jobs. The programs clarify what training or education is required to...


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