Surviving and Moving Beyond Low-Wage Jobs: Solutions for an Invisible Workforce in America

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by Randall S. Hansen Ph.D.

There’s been quite a bit of buzz lately about the number of white-collar jobs leaving the U.S. over the next decade. Forrester Research predicts as many as 3.3 million U.S. jobs that now pay combined wages of $136 billion will transfer offshore by 2014. Everything from call-enter work to software development to accounting is shifting to lower-wage centers in India China the Philippines Brazil and South Africa.

But what about the 30 million workers here in the U.S. stuck in dead-end low-paying jobs?

How can almost a quarter of the U.S. workforce be invisible? Call them low-wage workers employed in low-paying minimal or no-benefit jobs. Call them exploited or the working poor. Call them living (barely) from paycheck to paycheck with no job security. Call them under-educated under-trained and under-respected. Call them job-seekers stuck in dead-end jobs. But whatever you do do not call them low-skilled or lazy.

According to numerous sources approximately 30 million workers between the ages of 18 and 64 earn less than $9 an hour in their jobs — a full-time annual income of $18800 assuming a full-time (40 hour week) 52-week work schedule — the income that marks the federal poverty line for a family of four. These are folks making somewhere around the minimum wage.

The numbers are a little fuzzy because of family size the number of adults working and hours worked per week/month/year. Many of these folks work multiple jobs just to survive.

Some call it the Wal-Mart Effect but this situation goes well beyond Wal-Mart and other retailers. Low-wage workers labor in many industries: retail hospitality healthcare education security agriculture and manufacturing. The working poor toil as retail clerks and cashiers child-care workers nurses aides call-center operators housekeepers and janitors food preparation workers security guards farm laborers sewing-machine operators. Here’s a specific list of low-wage occupations.

Low-wage workers tend to be white female and with limited formal education. They often work in temporary or part-time positions and many have family responsibilities. More than half have at most a high-school education with almost a quarter only having some high-school education. It’s worth noting however that minorities are much more highly represented in the low-wage workforce than the total workforce and immigrants are especially likely to land in low-paying jobs. Here’s a table with a demographic profile of low-wage workers.

These low-wage workers have neither the skills education nor power to lobby for better jobs with better wages — or even basic benefits or tools for career advancement. Many of these workers lack healthcare paid sick days paid breaks and other benefits that most higher-wage workers simply take for granted. Many of these folks are living on the brink — one small misstep and they could be deep in debt and out of work.

These low-wage workers are often treated with little respect by their employers — whether that means limiting bathroom breaks forcing workers to soil their clothing or simply not taking workplace improvement suggestions from low-wage workers seriously. There are numerous books on low-wage workers but one of the most detailed — and a bit chilling — is Beth Shulman’s The Betrayal of Work: How Low Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans. Here’s a list of publications and books related to low-wage jobs.

Finally low-wage jobs are not going away. According to a report from the U.S Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics 17 of the 20 largest growth occupations over the next eight years (2008-2018) — resulting in 6 million new jobs — require job-seekers with limited education and provide minimal training — and are typically identified as low-wage jobs.

Solutions for Low-Wage Job-Seekers

The present and future picture for low-wage workers and job-seekers is pretty grim but there are some steps that offer hope for better wages better jobs better benefits and more job security.

From a career standpoint low-wage job-seekers can consider these six activities to move away from these dead-end jobs.

Seek Career Counseling. Many communities around the U.S. have career resources available at no or a very low cost. Job-seekers can find career counseling at Career One-Stop Centers. These centers offer all sorts of help for job-seekers. Find the one in or near your community by using this service locator. Job-seekers might also check with local high schools and vocational schools. Also some professional career coaches occasionally offer their services pro bono as a way of giving back to the community. The sooner you understand and develop a potential career path — and employers who will assist you in achieving your goals — the sooner you will move forward rather than treading water (or worse).

Identify Transferable Skills. These are skills you have acquired during any activity in your life — jobs classes projects parenting hobbies sports virtually anything — that are transferable and applicable to what you want to do in your next job. You may not think being a waitress or a store clerk provides you with many skills but you would be wrong. And once you learn how to better harness the power of the skills you already possess the better you will be able to move forward. Go to our transferable skills section to learn more about this technique.

Develop Mentoring Relationships. Many studies show that low-wage workers and job-seekers seem to think that working in these jobs is their fate. However with the right encouragement and resources you may be able to move beyond a dead-end job. A mentor is someone higher in your organization or career field who can guide you help you take you under his or her wing and nurture your career quest. Read more about finding a mentor.

Build Networking Skills. Having a plan is not enough. To find a better job — or a job with better benefits — you will need other people looking out for you. That’s what networking is all about. People you know — friends co-workers former bosses family etc. — can be an invaluable source of information for you. And whenever possible you must work on expanding your network — through community organizations classes volunteering. Read more about networking.

Finding the Right Employers. While many employers do not see the likelihood of dramatically increasing wages for many of these occupations job-seekers who love what they do should look for employers who have a corporate culture of respecting all employees. Research employers who offer career ladders and training or education benefits for advancement healthcare and childcare benefits job flexibility and emergency loans or grants to employees in sudden crisis. These employers do exist. In a report entitled Increasing the Visibility of the Invisible Workforce: Model Programs for Hourly and Lower Wage Employees the Boston College Center for Work and Family profiles several progressive employers including: Bank of America CVS FleetBoston Home Depot Kodak Kraft Foods Levi Strauss & Company Marriott International and Wachovia as well as a few others. Read a copy of the report in pdf format.

Pursue Educational Opportunities. Because continuing education is still out-of-reach for so many this solution — while being an important one — is currently last. Furthering your education will bring you more job opportunities. The hurdle of course is how to find the time and money to be able to do so. The best solution may be to find an employer that invests in its employees through a tuition grant or reimbursement plan. Studies show that the earnings of less-educated workers have fallen behind those of more-educated workers.

Political Solutions for Low-Wage Workers

Numerous political solutions are also available to some of the problems facing low-wage workers including:

Minimum Wage. Without question most experts and authors writing in this field decry the devaluation of the minimum wage — and they support an increase in the minimum wage. Many also recommend indexing the minimum wage so that it rises automatically thus making it less of a political hot potato. See our sidebar (above) for more details.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a federal income tax credit for low-income workers who are eligible for and claim the credit. The credit reduces the amount of tax an individual owes and may be returned in the form of a refund. Many experts call for strengthening and increasing this benefit. Studies show the EITC is one of the greatest tools for lifting children out of poverty.

Unions. Labor unions have dramatically lost power and members over the last few decades mainly as manufacturing jobs have declined. Giving unions more power in organizing these lower-wage workers and raising them out of the horrible working conditions just as they did for factory workers decades ago would be a step in the right direction. Read Robyn E. Blumner’s column on unions and the working poor.

Living Wage Campaigns. Living wage campaigns seek to pass local ordinances requiring private businesses that benefit from public money to pay their workers a living wage. Commonly the ordinances cover employers who hold large government service contracts or receive substantial financial assistance from local governments in the form of grants loans bond financing tax abatements or other economic-development subsidies.

Collectives and Associations. Grassroots efforts by various broad coalitions of people across the U.S. working together to help solve the low-wage problem and find solutions may be the most politically correct solution. Find some of these low-wage and living-wage associations here.

Employer Reform. Employers are free to react to competitive pressures by reducing compensation work hours or benefits. Yet some employers react to these pressures by increasing training opportunities and benefits. It all depends on the employer’s values and corporate culture — as well as outside pressure from special-interest groups unions and governmental agencies.

Final Thoughts on Low-Wage Jobs

These low-wage jobs are not going anywhere; in fact they will increase in numbers over the next decade. The solution is not necessarily to move all workers out of these positions but to develop programs for career advancement to boost earnings from these jobs to a living wage to provide safe working conditions to offer respect for low-wage workers and finally to offer at least minimal benefits (such as paid sick days healthcare etc.).

Job-seekers career counselors governmental agencies and progressive employers all working together is the true answer to this extremely tough and inhumane situation that 30 million American workers face.

Read more about the facts and fictions of low-wage workers in Beth Shulman’s Myths and Realities About Low-Wage Jobs. Read our review of her book The Betrayal of Work: How Low Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms. Founder Dr. Randall Hansen Dr. Randall S. Hansen is founder of Quintessential Careers one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web as well CEO of He is also founder of and He is publisher of Quintessential Careers Press including the Quintessential Careers electronic newsletter QuintZine. Dr. Hansen is also a published author with several books chapters in books and hundreds of articles. He’s often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Finally Dr. Hansen is also an educator having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Visit his personal Website or reach him by email at randall(at) Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

Take advantage of all the tools and articles on low-wage workers in this section of Quintessential Careers: Low Wage Jobs: Tools Statistics Resources.

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