A low percentage of low-income youth have college degrees. Workplace flexibility can help these workers balance work and life, and also pursue higher education.

The June 2011 jobs report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday was yet another signal that the U.S. economy is struggling on its path to recovery. With unemployment rising to 9.2 percent, not counting nearly a million discouraged workers who have given up looking for work because they believe their job prospects to be so dismal, the labor market and growth remain an urgent priority for policymakers, businesses and working families in America.

In this context, how can businesses maintain their competitive edge while also helping to improve the lives of low-wage workers, who have borne the brunt of the sluggish recovery?  A new report published by Workplace Flexibility 2010 at Georgetown Law and the Institute for Workplace Innovation at the University of Kentucky details the specific scheduling challenges faced by hourly workers, and how workplace flexibility policies can address those challenges while improving business’ bottom-line. In “Flexible Workplace Solutions for Low-Wage Hourly Workers: A Framework for a National Conversation,” Liz Watson and Jennifer Swanberg identify three main challenges facing hourly workers:

  • Rigidity: A lack of control over the scheduling of work hours, including overtime, and a lack of input into starting, quitting and break times;
  • Unpredictability: Having schedules assigned with little or no advance notice;
  • Instability: Fluctuations in work hours by week, time of day and length of shift, and reductions in work hours or involuntary part-time work.

Because of  these scheduling challenges, the 24 percent of the U.S. workforce that is in low-wage, hourly jobs have a difficult time balancing the dual demands of work and life. From the report:

“These days, most of us are negotiating demands at work and demands at home, and few of us have the flexibility at work that we need to do both. For low-wage workers…the daily struggle is often a whole lot harder. These workers are least likely to have flexibility at work, and are least likely to be able to pay someone to take care of their obligations outside of work.”

By adopting flexible workplace solutions such as shift-swapping, team scheduling and self-scheduling, and by providing opportunities for workers to have meaningful input into their work schedules, businesses can address the difficulties hourly workers face and can improve their employees’ engagement, productivity and well-being.

Speaking at a New America Foundation event to discuss this report on July 7, John Wilcox, Corporate Voices’ Deputy Director, said,

“Ultimately, flexibility is a management practice which produces positive business results. But manager training [in effectively implementing flexibility] is critical–it won’t work without it.”

Corporate Voices for Working Families has published an updated version of its flagship report, “Business Impacts of Flexibility: An Imperative for Expansion,” which documents the positive impacts flexibility has on talent management, human capital outcomes and financial performance. Companies like IBM, Merck and American Express are seeing the positive business impacts of flexibility both domestically and globally, and are using flexibility to distinguish themselves as “Employers of Choice.”

Workplace Flexibility 2010’s new report also echoes a finding from another Corporate Voices report– that flexibility works well with an hourly workforce, and not just with exempt workers. “Innovative Workplace Flexibility Options for Hourly Workers” includes case studies illustrating how Bright Horizons, Marriott, PNC and Procter & Gamble have adopted flexible workplace arrangements with hourly workers.

To help expand flexibility within the wider business community, Corporate Voices has produced toolkits for hourly employees and managers, which include practical tips and worksheets to help employees propose a flexible work arrangement, and tools for supervisors to successfully manage flexibility. Corporate Voices is also recognizing the leadership and raising the profile of businesses who have shown support for flexibility as a smart business strategy through its national workplace flexibility campaign, launched in 2010 after the first-ever White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility.

In addition to being a smart management strategy, flexibility is also recognized today as a practice that helps support other work-life and talent development programs that help hourly workers move up the career ladder into higher-paying jobs.

As Liz Watson said at the New America Foundation event,

“Flexibility is a critical piece in the chain to broader issues facing low-wage workers.”

Nowhere is this more evident than with Learn and Earn programs. The challenge of financing higher education is one of the biggest challenges to college completion in America, especially for lower-wage workers. As federal and state need-based financial aid is currently being cut due to tight budgets, innovative partnerships between community colleges and employers have an important role to play in increasing postsecondary education completion. Research has shown that when employers offer low-wage workers scheduling flexibility, tuition support, mentoring opportunities and other educational benefits, they can and do find ways to balance work with pursuing higher education. Learn and Earn partnerships that create these supports, therefore, can help train young people with workforce skills employers need, and help low-income workers gain credentials with labor market value.

By documenting and sharing examples of business-led Learn and Earn partnerships, Corporate Voices is encouraging the expansion of these best practices within the wider business community.

Employer-sponsored flexibility, educational benefits and training can also play a powerful role in engaging low-income young adults, who would otherwise not be connected either to the labor market or school, in work and pursuing higher education. Corporate Voice is working to encourage partnerships between businesses and innovative non-profit organizations to create Enterprising Pathway programs to develop this untapped talent to meet employer needs.

As employers consider the merits of workplace flexibility to address scheduling challenges for hourly workers, we also urge them to consider how flexibility can be used as a strategic talent development tool, which will help enhance the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce and business community.