What is a good job?

When politicians promise to create more jobs, they typically promise ‘good jobs’ or ‘good middle-class jobs.’ But what do they mean by a ‘good job?’

When politicians promise to create more jobs, they typically promise ‘good jobs’ or ‘good middle-class jobs.’ But what do they mean by a ‘good job?’

Typically they don’t define it and instead end up focusing on the quantity of jobs rather than the quality. The quantity of jobs clearly matters. But a successful jobs policy must enhance the opportunity for good jobs as well.

Fortunately, there are efforts underway to help define what is meant by a good job. These efforts have been brought together by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in the 2014 edition of its annual Employment Report.

“Job quality,” the OECD report says, refers to “those aspects of employment that contribute to the well-being of workers.” This is not a bad definition of a good job. Policies, then, should be geared to the quality of job opportunities as well as the quantity. It’s the success in doing well in both that determines how well a country is doing.

Overall, the OECD report finds that Canada ranks somewhere in the middle among 32 countries when it comes to the quality of jobs, along with the United States. The best performers include Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland. This should be no surprise since these countries place a higher value on social cohesion and fairness than do Canada, the U.S. or the U.K.

The report also finds there are three groups of workers that face many obstacles in securing a quality job. These include workers with low skills, workers with temporary jobs and young workers, while high-skill workers not only have access to more jobs but also to the best quality jobs.

The OECD report identifies three important factors that define quality jobs and contribute to worker well-being. These are:

l Earnings equality, which not only includes the level of earnings but also the distribution of earnings. It measures how well employment contributes to the material standard of living of workers and their families. But income inequality also matters. “For a given level of average earnings, overall well-being tends to be higher the more equal is its distribution,” the OECD says.

l Labour market security refers to economic security and the risk of job loss and what this means for workers and their families. It is determined by the risk of unemployment, which includes the probability of becoming unemployed and the average expected time to get another job, and unemployment insurance, which includes unemployment benefit coverage. Laws providing for a minimum wage, workplace health and safety, and hours of work legislation, as well as retraining opportunities, all contribute to labour market security.

l Quality of work environment, which is determined by the nature and intensity of the job, the organization of the workplace and the workplace atmosphere.

The workplace environment “depends crucially on whether workers have autonomy in their job, are given learning opportunities and well-defined work objectives, and also receive constructive feedback,” according to the OECD report. It adds that “when jobs and workplaces combine these factors, people are more apt to manage work pressure and difficult tasks, and they also tend to be healthier, more satisfied with their job and more productive.” This is a critical responsibility of management.

Canada ranks 12th out of 32 countries when it comes to high-quality earnings, 20th when it comes to high labour market security, and 11th in good working environment.

Overall, Canadians do better in quality jobs than their American counterparts, but not as well as workers in Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

While the OECD focus on quality of jobs is directed at improving life chances and individual well-being for workers, there are broader economic and social benefits to society as well.

Without labour market security, workers will be more resistant to change at a time when we need a greater openness to change. When workers have a high quality work environment, they will be healthier because they will not be exposed to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and other forms of stress-induced poor health.

They will also be more productive, enhancing the competitiveness of their employers, and have lower rates of absenteeism.

All of society benefits when we create the conditions for good jobs.

Quantity and quality of jobs, then, have to be our goals. Right now, we are getting only middling results on both. Quantity without quality is not a recipe for a successful economy.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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