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Treating Hourly Workers like Professional Employees

Today's post is courtesy of our board member,  Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D, SPHR.

A recent study found that many American workers between 18 and 29 plan to remain in hourly jobs for the majority of their careers (Gurchiek, 2008). This includes careers in what are sometimes viewed as “entry-level” hourly jobs found in the retail, service, and hospitality industries. Even more surprising, at least to me, 25% of the employees surveyed who possessed college degrees intend to pursue careers in hourly jobs. This goes against the widely held assumption that college educated hourly employees are just biding their time until they can find a “real job” in the salaried workforce. As the study points out, there appears to be a shift among younger workers in what they consider viable and rewarding long-term career options.

There are many reasons why hourly work might be seen as a good long-term career option. First, many hourly jobs now provide healthcare benefits so this is not as major an issue as it once was. Some hourly jobs have quite impressive benefits including childcare, educational reimbursements, and paid vacation. Second, many hourly jobs are fairly stable in terms of their position in the economy. Salaried jobs can often be “offshored” to other countries, but many hourly jobs, particularly those in the hospitality, retail and healthcare industry require providing personal service to customers which makes them generally immune to being taken offshore. For example, if you have skills as a waiter then you will always have local job opportunities as long as people go to restaurants where you live. Third, hourly jobs by definition do not require working outside of scheduled work hours. This is a very attractive for people who wish to maintain an active and full life outside of work. Perhaps the single most widespread drawback to hourly jobs is they tend to pay less than salaried work. But people may accept lower paying hourly employment if it allows them to “work to live” rather than requiring them to “live to work”.

So what does this mean for hourly employers?

A shift toward more people pursuing hourly careers suggests several implications for employers. First, it increases the potential to create longer-tenured, increasingly stable hourly workforces. The benefits of reducing hourly turnover have been widely written about so I won't rehash them here. But I will call attention to another opportunity that comes from having longer tenured employees: the chance to significantly increase employee performance levels over time.

Historically, companies have invested relatively few resources into maximizing the performance of hourly employees. Hourly workers tended to have access to far fewer resources than salaried or “professional” employees working in the same companies. The thinking was, “hourly employees will only be here a short time so why spend money to improve their performance”. But this thinking may no longer be true as more people choose to remain in hourly jobs indefinitely. As companies experience longer levels of hourly tenure, more emphasis should be placed on providing frontline managers and supervisors with tools and training to maximize employee performance. Even small shifts in hourly performance can result in massive bottom line impact given the size of many hourly workforces. Equipping managers with knowledge and tools to provide frontline employees with clear direction, effective feedback, and fair and consistent rewards and recognition will provide major dividends in terms of higher levels of employee loyalty, engagement, and productivity


Gurchiek, K. (2008). “New collar” workers choose hourly careers. HR Magazine, September, p. 24.

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