Re-Valuing Labor: Ousting Obsolescence

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

February 6, 2024

Throughout 2023, The Pulse explored how society values’ labor’ – how it recognizes and compensates the effort provided by workers for their employers. The research revealed that, in many cases, that value is set not by the actual work done but instead by the relative value of the person who performed it:

In too many cases, women and people of color are deemed to offer less value than caucasian men, even when they do the exact same work.

A significant percentage of global labor efforts are completely uncompensated, which suggests those ‘workers’ offer no value. Contrary to that thought, however, is the reality that their effort contributes significant value to the community by providing social and altruistic benefits while alleviating the burden on public funds

Sometimes, the workers exposed to the highest risks while on the job were also the lowest-paid. The COVID-19 pandemic clarified the exceptional value of the “essential worker,” whose ‘menial’ labor was determined to be vital to protect the health and safety of their community.

The advent of digital automation as a labor provider has also upended many work-world norms. In some cases, human workers were eliminated altogether in favor of a more accurate and speedier machine. (In other cases, however, the technology augmented the human effort, creating more value for the company.)

These realities reflect an entrenched perspective of the ‘value of labor’ as that has been defined by centuries of human development and evolution. Effort was assigned ‘value’ based on the time it took to complete, its relative simplicity, the personal characteristics of who was providing it, or the volume of product rendered within a specified period. That long-standing but haphazard ‘labor valuation’ practice has caused a wide and growing gap between the compensation paid for services and the actual value they provide to the community.

 

Outputs vs. Outcomes: A Critical Difference

However, the calamities of the past few years appear to have triggered a shift away from the norm of ‘work value’ being appraised based on who is doing it, not on the benefit it confers. The opportunities that have emerged through the COVID years – digitization, remote work, Artificial Intelligence – and the pressures generated by those phenomena are driving a re-imagination of how ‘labor’ is valued. Instead of using piecemeal time measurements or a rote count of widgets produced, industry leaders are now contemplating how to engage with all the assets offered by their employees to improve the company’s fortunes as a whole. Organizations of all types are now reviewing their current workforce deployment strategies to determine if they would fare better if they altered their traditional worker and occupational expectations.

 

Shifting Focus …

What’s becoming more apparent is that emerging workforce options can offer significant benefits to those entities willing to embrace them. Enterprises are taking a broader look at their workforce to determine if unexplored potential within that resource might serve the organization better. In many cases, jobs can be automated with technology, which frees the human worker to provide a more intentional service. In other cases, a re-analysis of the full spectrum of advantages offered by a particular occupation or worker can attain significantly more value when viewed through a ‘corporate benefit’ lens instead of a ‘payroll expense’ lens:

How would the company function if workflows were designed to expand on or augment employee talents and skills beyond their rote mechanics?

How can workers contribute more to achieving corporate goals rather than just adding numbers to corporate outputs?

How can the company leverage the outputs of its human resource  assets to improve overall productivity and profitability?

One possible response to each of these questions is to shift the corporate mindset away from bean-counting and toward value creation.

 

… to a New Corporate Reality …

As is usually the case, shifting corporate culture to embrace new opportunities requires a dedicated strategy that addresses both the old elements that need changing and the new elements that introduce revised expectations.

From an overarching perspective, the entire organization can focus beyond earlier metrics (cost savings or efficiency levels, as examples) and toward ‘value creation’ in general. What are the company’s most significant barriers to growth, and how can revising the effort of its workforce address those challenges better?

The company can also determine which elements are best suited for automated labor and identify where human effort may be wasted. In these instances, adding technology to do rote work frees the employee to contribute other value to the company. New technology might also augment that worker’s effort, increasing its value while reducing the cost to attain that enhanced benefit.

Enterprise leaders might also review each job description and activity to discover the highly valuable but often hidden ‘soft skills’ embedded within it. Most employees can be taught the manual skills needed to perform specific tasks, but their intellectual capacity to analyze and make changes on the fly is what makes them more valuable as contributing employees.

Organizations are embracing this ‘changed mind’ and creating jobs and occupations that facilitate both more flexibility and respect for the worker and also improved productivity for the business.

 

… That Embraces ALL Possibilities.

But they can’t stop there. Recent data reveals that the inequities that were so deeply entrenched in the workplace habits of the past have not been fully alleviated post-pandemic:

Women still need to catch up to men in their economic recovery after the pandemic. One reason they lag behind is that they frequently held those jobs that were most impacted by COVID-induced closures, including any job that required face-to-face exposure. Women also perform most of the community’s caregiving services (frequently unpaid work), and that burden increased during the coronavirus era.

Those without post-high school education credits are also still suffering economic depression caused by the pandemic. The workforce population with bachelor’s or higher degrees has grown by 6.9% over numbers posted in April 2020, while the group without that educational achievement is 3.2% smaller than it was at that time.

Color and ethnicity also remain factors in the employment sector. Unemployment for Blacks and Latinos stands at 5.1% now, while the white unemployment level is only 3.5%.

Both companies and their workforces are aware of the evolutions now occurring in today’s labor markets. New occupations are developing to replace those now deemed obsolete, while emerging technology and workforce philosophies are driving innovation in hiring and retension strategies for high-quality workers. The situation offers hope that, despite the losses and destruction caused by COVID-19, it did open doors – and eyes – to new ways to engage with and reward the human resources that truly manage the global economy.

 

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