low wage earner

Report: Low-wage earners are stuck in a ‘trap’

A call for stakeholders’ participation to build an equitable career navigation ecosystem

A new report – Unlocking Economic Prosperity: Career navigation in a time of rapid change – states, “Over the past several decades, the United States has witnessed gradual but undeniable rising income inequality.”

Authored by scholars from the Harvard Business School and The Project on Workforce at Harvard University’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, the report says our system has failed the 44% of U.S. workers who identify as low-wage earners.

The report – which is led by Joseph B. Fuller, professor of management practice and co-head of Managing the Future of Work Project at Harvard Business School – explains, “Many entered the workforce through low-wage jobs and became ensnared in the ‘low-wage trap,’ cycling in and out of low-wage jobs that provide neither valuable credentials nor a path to advancement.”

Women and people of color are overrepresented in this population; and the majority of individuals have less than a college degree. For these workers, wage growth has largely stagnated since the 1980s.”

Successful Career Navigation

The report identifies five drivers of success in career navigation, including:

  • information accuracy and access
  • skills and credentials
  • social capital
  • wraparound resources and supports
  • social structures and ecosystems

“Many learners and workers from under-resourced communities do not have access to these drivers,” according to the paper.

The research examines the career pathways of groups facing advancement challenges – “young people entering the labor market for the first time, adults in low-mobility jobs, and individuals re-entering the workforce after a period of absence.”

The report identifies a dozen types of career navigation services, tools, programs, and structures that support career journeys. Services include coaching, mentoring, and networking, while tools include those that support exploration and pathway mapping and self-assessment.

Programs include career navigation courses and intensive, experiential programs. The structures examined include stackable pathways and public and private sector policies and practices that are intended to improve career navigation.

The report states, “The career navigation supports with the strongest evidence behind them–including career coaching and intensive, experiential programs–address multiple drivers, including access to information, social capital, skills, and resources.”

Calls to Action

All stakeholders have “a role in building a career navigation ecosystem.” These community members include policymakers, employers, educators, workforce intermediaries and organizations, and philanthropy.”

The report names 10 principles that should guide the development of any career navigation system or program. Among them:

  • Integrate opportunities for career exposure and social capital development
  • Design culturally relevant approaches
  • Use high-touch services that meet individuals where they are
  •  Provide financial and wraparound support
  • Leverage artificial intelligence to personalize pathways
  • Center equity by recruiting and elevating individuals from under-resourced communities
More Research Needed to Achieve Equitable Navigation

This report notes, “[It] lays the groundwork for the development of an evidence-based, field-informed strategy that will give every learner and worker the agency to pursue fulfilling careers and build a more prosperous economy.”

“Career navigation is a new field, and several major knowledge gaps persist,” points out the report. “To better understand and support equitable navigation, we need additional research.”

“We conclude by laying out an agenda for the future. We need more disaggregated, longitudinal research on career outcomes, including on the impacts of individuals’ career choices, to inform decision-making.”

Read the full report Unlocking Economic Prosperity: Career navigation in a time of rapid change here.

Get our latest articles, videos, and podcasts
sharing solutions to today's workforce challenges.

Sign Up to Recieve Our Newsletter