In Gig Economy, It Takes More Than Grit to Get Ahead
The Stairs Start at the Second Floor
For several years, I’ve been telling a story about how it used to be that someone could start working for a power company as a meter reader and eventually work their way up to CEO. Being a meter reader is a lousy job—out in the weather with dogs biting your ankles—but if you stuck it out, you might get picked for a company training program, be promoted to power line technician, eventually become an engineer, and maybe move into management. In this version of the American Dream, there was a route from the bottom to the top through company-sponsored training and education. According to the story I told, someone invented electric meters that read themselves and now the entry-level job is as a technician and requires skills typically developed beyond high school. People without skills can move up—people without them remain stuck at the bottom.
The New York Times just published a compelling story by Neil Irwin that validates and updates my story by contrasting the experience of two women. One worked for Eastman Kodak as a janitor in the 1980s and worked her way up to chief technology officer for the company. The other works today as a janitor at Apple, but she is a contractor with no opportunity to work her way up at Apple, or really, anywhere else.
This is a familiar story about how the gig economy is widening the opportunity gap between those with and those without post-high school skills. We can bemoan it as an example of corporate heartlessness, and I wouldn’t disagree—although, as the article points out, look at the relative positions of Kodak and Apple today before passing judgment too harshly. Still, some companies continue to offer their workers opportunities to gain postsecondary skills, and many more should do so.
Whatever else must be done, this story certainly underlines why so many need and want postsecondary credentials to gain the opportunities that come with them.
But there is another conclusion to draw from this story about people stuck at the bottom. It’s that the examples of the power company and Kodak prove many people in entry-level jobs can do much more and we should never write them off. The simple fact is we don’t have a comprehensive national system to assure all working adults can obtain the postsecondary skills and credentials they—and the nation—need. Consider the long-term consequences of denying millions of Americans any realistic way to advance. Consider the talent we are wasting. I honestly believe there is no more urgent task facing our nation than to build a system that helps Americans gain the skills to go as far as their desire, effort, and talent can take them.