Raise Workers' Skills Before Wages

Editorial Notebook

As President Lawrence H. Summers continues to ruminate the suggestions of the Katz Committee, any further discussion about the living wage should center on the fundamental premise that people should lead dignified and decent lives. Moreover, Harvard has the financial and intellectual capacity to reflect on the state of society and on its own institutional culture. It should therefore constantly consider how to improve the lives of all members of its own and the wider community.

With that in mind, the Katz Committee report is disappointing since it calls for creating an incentive system that discourages low-paid, low-skilled workers from developing their abilities through the training programs that Harvard offers.

It is rarely noted that the decrease in the real hourly wages of Harvard workers since 1994 has been far less steep than the decline for workers without a high school education or U.S. citizenship. The Katz Committee reported that real mean hourly wages of Harvard’s custodians fell 13 percent. Meanwhile the percentage of Harvard custodians who have high school diplomas fell 19 percent and the percentage who are U.S. citizens fell 24 percent. It is hardly a scandal that a less educated custodial staff with, presumably, somewhat less facility in the English language isn’t paid quite as much.

An important way to raise wages is to educate people and thus increase the skills that they bring to the labor market. A living wage drastically reduces an employee’s incentive to seek an education. Consider the example of a Harvard custodian who is paid $9 an hour. The custodian can find a job that pays him $2 an hour more by learning to read, which will be taught in a literacy class through the Bridge to Learning Program (a Harvard program that pays people their hourly wage to attend literacy and language classes). But thanks to the hard work of the Living Wage Campaign, the worker’s pay is suddenly boosted to $11 an hour. Now that new job looks a lot less attractive; the custodian has to go through all the trouble of taking the classes without the wage benefit at the end to drive him. The economic incentive to learn has disappeared.

Of course, in the real world employees’ choices aren’t so simple or clear-cut because the economic benefits to any new knowledge are uncertain. Low-skilled workers who know little English also have non-financial incentives for wanting to develop these skills, such as wanting to be able to read with their children or converse more easily. However, the chance to earn a higher wage at the end of a class is, without doubt, a serious motivating factor that would be reduced in the presence of a living wage.

It is foolish to look at Harvard as a utopia whose labor policies should be divorced from those of the world around it. The Living Wage Campaign calls on Harvard to be a leader, but Harvard cannot lead by paying a living wage few other institutions, public or private, have the luxury of matching. Certainly a few cities, including Cambridge, have living wage ordinances, but those generally cover only municipal employees and contractors.

A proper use of Harvard’s intellectual prowess and vast financial resources would be to concentrate on developing curricula, strategies and oversight techniques to use in training low-skilled and illiterate workers. The first people to use these curricula-in-development would be the participants in Harvard’s Bridge to Learning Program. After that, Harvard could make them available for municipalities, other universities and even private businesses to use to train their own low-skilled employees.

In the end, the living wage debate only affects a small subset of Harvard’s service employees; Harvard’s responsibilities and opportunities are surely much larger than that.

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