Staffing is a complicated issue for employers of typically high-turnover, lower-wage workers, but with a tighter than usual labor market, employers are especially motivated to attract and retain them.

To help bring attention to this issue and foster positive outcomes for workers and employers, the Federal Reserve System recently published Investing in America’s Workforce: Improving Outcomes for Workers and Employers.

Among those contributing to the new book was Steve Shepelwich, a Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City senior community development advisor, whose work is reflected in a section of the book dedicated to strategies to improve job quality for lower-wage, frontline workers.

“We see this as a real need,” Shepelwich said. “Part of the story is that we have a lot of low-wage workers within tight labor markets. Employers are more pressed to fill these positions, which ultimately helps individuals, employers and the community.”

Shepelwich and co-author Elizabeth Sobel Blum, senior community development advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, wrote a chapter of the three-volume book titled “Partnering with Banks in Workforce Development.” Liddy Romero, director of Denver-based WorkLab Innovations and a member of the Kansas City Fed’s Community Development Advisory Council, wrote a chapter on workforce support titled “Playing for Keeps, Strategies That Benefit Business and Workers.”

“I think everybody involved in workforce development will learn something new,” Shepelwich said of the book.

Supporting frontline workers

Investing in America’s Workforce pools research, perspectives and stories from experts in workforce development, which consists of a range of strategies within a region to develop talent and skills, connect employers and workers and facilitate career mobility. The book includes solutions and creative ways to improve the lives of workers at little cost to employers.Romero takes inspiration for her work from her experience growing up as the child of small business owners in south Texas. Her parents owned a bakery and filled every role in the organization, from accountant to custodian.

“When you are a business owner you have very little time to think about frontline workers, especially when they are small businesses, like those that make up a majority of our economy,” she said. “I understand very clearly how sometimes worker issues take a backburner to other things, such as paying payroll or providing safety.”

Challenges arise when workers face issues related to job quality that have a negative effect on their quality of life at home and productivity on the job. Shepelwich says home health care workers are an example of those who often face difficult work circumstances.

To better understand the issue, Shepelwich has worked closely with Adrienne Smith, president of the New Mexico Caregivers Coalition and former member of the Federal Reserve’s Community Advisory Council. Smith leads a statewide task force to recommend state policies for improving job quality for frontline health care workers. She described the situation of an average worker in that field and their challenges:

“These are typically women—minority or immigrant women—who, depending on where they live are making $9 to $12 per hour. Because of the low wages, they must often work two jobs just to make ends meet sometimes because an agency restricts the numbers of hours they can work in order to avoid overtime pay. At the same time, such a worker may also be a single parent, caring for a child and perhaps caring for an older relative, too.”

These types of situations often create negative ripple effects for both workers and employers and can directly affect the youngest members of society.

What do you do with your kids?” Shepelwich said. “A lot of companies don’t realize the needs or pressures lower-wage workers are facing. What they may think is a great benefits package might be great only for middle-class employees.”
Instead, employers inadvertently may be creating instability, which hinders a worker’s ability to move ahead. Stability serves as a precursor to mobility and positive change for workers while providing an avenue for employers to increase loyalty, decrease turnover and ultimately see a positive economic impact for the business itself.

“These workers have a high turnover; the industry is just grinding through them,” Shepelwich said. “The reality is that people need stability and the ability to sit back and breathe, build a foundation. They may not be able to move up but they need a stable spot so their kids can eventually move up.”

Romero wrote the “Playing for Keeps” chapter with human resource professionals in mind. Her organization, WorkLab Innovations, works with employers to address barriers to work for frontline workers, including getting to work/staying at work; mental, behavioral and financial health; and understanding health-care benefits. The service is free to employees and covered by a fee charged to the employer.

“I think it needs to echo in the minds of talent managers and other HR professionals because they are the people who actually can be the bottleneck happening in some of these programs or they can really make it flourish,” she said.

Within the chapter, Romero lists challenges and promising practices for employers. One example considers how training programs for employees can conflict with their scheduled hours. She suggests employers collaborate with local educational or training institutions to see if the courses can be taught onsite. Employers also could consider tying the acquisition of certain skills to a rising wage.

“What do you do with your kids?” Shepelwich said. “A “The goal is not to retain people in low-income jobs; our job is to stabilize the workforce,” she said. “All of our employers buy in because it’s no good to anyone to keep someone at a job that they’re not happy at, they’re disengaged in.”

She shares two adages: “What if I train them and they leave?” and “What if I don’t train them and they stay?” saying they underscore how work history would become irrelevant if employees aren’t trained at their workplaces.

Building on past success

The idea for Investing in America’s Workforce came about a few years ago following publication of Transforming U.S. Workforce Policy, a Federal Reserve System resource that has had more than 50,000 downloads. Building on the first book, the new volume aims to reach a broader audience and is written in laymen’s terms. Romero was invited early in the planning stages to be a contributor to Investing in America’s Workforce and her input helped shape the book’s theme

Publication of Investing in America’s Workforce is part of a multifaceted effort for the Federal Reserve System to invest resources in workforce development issues. The Kansas City Fed will continue its focus on job quality and host events around the Tenth District that highlight relevant aspects of the book throughout 2019.

In addition, Shepelwich has organized a range of events across the Tenth District on job quality strategies to assist both workers and businesses, often partnering with national organizations such as the Aspen Institute, a policy studies organization that provides a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues, and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which develops regional collaborations to meet local workforce needs. Romero is a Job Quality Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

“Everybody can find themselves in there somewhere,” Shepelwich said of the book. “Flip a page and get an idea of a new resource or new topic to consider. All topics are grouped around reframing workforce development from a social service activity to an investment that provides a return to an employer.”

Find more resources at and

Investing in America’s Workforce can be downloaded for free at External Hear more from Liddy Romero at External

The book was created with support from District Reserve Banks, in collaboration with Rutgers University, the University of Texas and the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Spanning more than 1,000 pages, the book includes more than 70 articles from more than 100 writers. The volumes are divided by category: Investing in Workers, Investing in Work and Investing in Systems for Employment Opportunity.