The path to job mobility

A tool from Brookings can help employers and job placement professionals guide displaced workers to better career opportunities.

The path to job mobility

February 03, 2022

The crux: The post-pandemic job force will face unprecedented challenges. As jobs shift and even disappear, thousands of workers will need support getting back to work or shifting to different fields with better career pathways. A new tool and research insights from the Brookings Institution’s Workforce of the Future initiative can help workforce planners, community colleges and a range of job placement experts inform policies and create programs that expand job opportunities.

The context: In the U.S., low-wage earners, in particular Black and Hispanic workers, have been hit hardest by pandemic-related job losses. Millions have not returned to work, some because of COVID-19 fears, others because they cannot find childcare. Many want to retrain for a better job.

Workers in low-wage occupations have long-faced structural barriers to upward mobility, with racial and gender disparities holding many workers back. Researchers at Brookings analyzed hundreds of thousands of real-world, job-to-job transitions and found that Black and Hispanic women face the lowest shares of upward transitions—43 and 37 percent, respectively, compared to 57 percent for white men and 61 percent for Asian men. These gaps persist regardless of education. The research also identified industries and occupations where low-wage workers are most likely to get stuck.

With billions of federal dollars flowing to cities and states to recover and rebuild their economies, leaders have an opportunity to target investments for more effective and equitable outcomes that increase resiliency in the American workforce.

Key tool takeaways

Using real-time data, the Mobility Pathways tool shows the most common job paths into and out of a field, for example, where a janitor or waitress might find a better job based on the typical job-seeking pathways other janitors and waitresses take—or overlook. “This tool can empower career coaches and counselors in helping people who feel stuck and don’t know what their options are,” said Ian Seyal, a senior project manager and research analyst at Brookings.

Locating “good” jobs

Work from home has taken hold, so what do janitors in empty office buildings do now? The tool shows that many former janitors become maids or clean homes, but that’s a declining industry.

However, freight and stock mover positions—common transition jobs for two percent of former janitors—present growing opportunities for slightly higher pay, as does ground maintenance. Even better is construction, with a salary bump of $10,000 a year.

These insights could help career counselors and job placement professionals steer janitors away from house cleaning and into jobs with more potential.

Finding employees

The tool helps employers find employees, often right under their nose. If an employer has a hard time filling a network systems analyst position, the tool can show where workers with likely similar skills are.

As the data show, five percent of network analysts’ moves were from a software engineering job and four percent were from computer and office machine repair.

Perhaps machine repair is on the downswing at a company, said Seyal. “Rather than laying off the machine repairers in the company and trying to hire a data analyst, employers could offer the repairer a bit of training and move them to a new position.”

Using city-specific data to guide job placements

The data behind the tool can also show results for specific cities or regions, which helps those who prefer not to move far afield find work locally in growing industries with better pay.

For example, in Abilene, Texas, janitors might want to avoid freight or stock mover positions since these jobs are on the decline in the area, unlike nationally. Instead, they might focus on ground maintenance for the same salary or on construction for a salary bump.

Helping students find better paths

Community colleges can use the tool to decide which programs they want to build up based on how readily their target population—students with some college experience but no credentials, for example, or the recently unemployed—can move into a growing field.

“Community colleges are really thinking now about how they can adapt to workforce needs,” said Seyal, “and this real-time data can inform that.”

As the U.S. economy recovers, tools like this can help workers find new and better jobs in an altered economy.

This is just a start. More tools and resources like this will be needed and the Center continues to support research initiatives like the Workforce for the Future initiative to help workers build more secure and prosperous futures.

Barbara Ray is a Chicago-based writer who writes about social policy and research.