Crossing disciplines and breaking boundaries

Is it viable to invest in your workers as a key component of your business success? Can employers imagine restructuring jobs to meet the needs of their workers? It is possible for both workers and companies in Massachusetts to thrive together? Tiffany Ferguson hopes so.

At the Boston Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Tiffany leads business engagement efforts around improving job quality for people working in historically lower-wage industries.

What supports do businesses need in order to deploy changes to their operations in ways that can improve the quality of work for employees?” Tiffany asks. “That is the principle question I grapple with on a day-to-day basis, and the answer to that will culminate in a multi-year program local companies can opt into.

The Boston Fed believes that while the overall economy is strong, there are still many workers in the Commonwealth struggling to get by, unable to meet their basic needs. At the same time, businesses are facing the challenge of a tight labor market where it is increasingly harder to recruit and retain talent. With Tiffany’s help, the Boston Fed, along with the Commonwealth Corporation and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, are partnering to better understand the challenges and opportunities around redesigning jobs for workers, particularly in industries with large numbers of low-income or entry-level positions.Answer:  The opportunity to work with a private company and students from different backgrounds has been extraordinary. It is easy to get stuck in your own departmental bubble, and the approach that I bring as a DUSP student is markedly different than that of my MIT Sloan peers. It has been incredibly satisfying to see how our different skills sets are activated by this course. 

The question is, can a person who bags your groceries or who takes care of your grandma at home, also have dignity and economic security at work.

The primary anchor for Tiffany’s efforts is the partnership, the Reinventing Work Initiative, but she also manages the Research Consortium on Quality Jobs that brings together local researchers committed to raising awareness of the impact of job quality on workers, communities, and the economy. Her highest hope is for more employers to seek out those win-win propositions that can bolster worker engagement and strengthen business competitiveness. Through this work, she is capturing and sharing the innovations and practices many companies are deploying so others can adapt them.

Tiffany joined the Fed in 2018. Before that, she worked in the nonprofit, philanthropic, and public sectors on public-sector innovation, inclusive economic development, cross-sector collaboration, and diversity and inclusion education and programming. All of these experiences were valuable, but when Tiffany was working on her master’s in city planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT, she realized something was missing. An understanding of business. That’s when she enrolled in the Sustainability Certificate.

The Sustainability Initiative demonstrated to me that management science and business acumen could be activated towards questions that I generally assumed were the province of the social sector,” Tiffany says. “It was S-Lab discussions that helped me unpack what sustainability looks like in different company contexts, and how to be an effective agent in any of those contexts.

During her S-Lab course, Tiffany’s team worked with Patagonia to reimagine how an apparel brand might work with contract manufacturers to ensure that workers earn living wages.

“It was my team’s job to research and conceptualize the different approaches that might create value for the factories in a real way, while also lifting wages for workers,” Tiffany says. “The skill I learned in doing so was an analytical one—the ability to go beyond the mental model that factories and brands are destined to have these transactional relationships instead of something more mutually transformative.”

The skills Tiffany learned in the certificate program were invaluable, but it was her leadership role on the 10th Annual Sustainability Summit–focused on social sustainability and good jobs–that lead to her to the Federal Reserve.

“At the Summit, I met a someone from the Fed who was incredibly impressed that the student-run conference handled the topic of good jobs with such sophisticatedion,” Tiffany recalls. “The Summit addressed a lot of questions she had about where the Fed wanted to go with this type of work. The Initiative gave me the platform to make these issues front and center for the Summit, which really allowed me to test a set of narratives (related to worker well-being) that could resonate with the private sector and beyond; without that I’m not convinced I would have believed the private sector had the potential to reckon with some of these big questions in an authentic way.”

With her nonprofit, public-sector background, Tiffany never imagined she’d be working at a place like the Fed, because she knew very little about monetary policy and wasn’t aware of the organization’s mandate to focus on maximum employment for all working people. She thinks it’s incredibly exciting that the Fed is active in this space. “In a way it’s uncharted territory for the Bank,” she says. “It’s a huge paradigm shift to think about ‘upgrading the job’ instead of focusing only on ‘upgrading the worker’.”

With all her experience, Tiffany is actually the perfect person to make the case convince businesses that businesses who look inward to improve job qualitythis work will find this workis worthwhile–that something operating differently and potentially better is possible.