Opinion | What Makes a Good Job Good?

People can disagree even over those basic criteria. How would you rate a job that pays well but offers poor mobility or equity? A LinkedIn member survey released this month found that a third of workers would exchange a small cut in pay for more enjoyable work, and a quarter would do so in exchange for “a stronger chance to grow in the role,” among other hypothetical options — but 46 percent would not give up pay for anything.

Labor economists talk about two kinds of employers. Some take the high road, designing jobs that are varied and interesting, require lots of training and are well paid. Others take the low road, dumbing down jobs so that anyone can do them and consequently paying lower wages. What low-road employers save in pay is offset by higher costs for supervision and rapid turnover. “Companies taking those two different approaches can coexist in the same industry. So it is a choice,” Groshen of Cornell told me.

Not all of the “high road” companies are white-collar operations. Maureen Conway, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s economic opportunities program, favorably cites QuikTrip Corp., a privately held company based in Tulsa, Okla., that has more than 24,000 employees in more than 900 locations, where they sell food and gasoline. QuikTrip designs “stable jobs, more interesting jobs,” Conway said. Employees are taught to interact with customers and track inventory. The extra training takes time. “There’s a significant on-boarding process,” she said. “There’s job shadowing for a couple of weeks.”

Most people would consider the high-training, high-pay job to be better than the low-training, low-pay job. But not all. Some people just need quick money to pay the bills and may lack the inclination, time or ability for a “high road” job. I got an example of that when I spoke with David Zamir, founder and C.E.O. of Nana Academy, a company that trains people in appliance repair at no cost and then sends them out on jobs. Zamir said Nana graduates who learn the most complicated repair jobs can make $160,000 a year or more. But “15 percent want simple and easy,” he said. “They want in and out.” And that’s fine, he said.

You might think it stands to reason that jobs would improve when workers are in greater demand, but in at least one respect it’s just the opposite, according to research by Brad Hershbein, a senior economist and deputy director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. When companies are desperate to fill openings, they will lower their hiring standards, which may require them to simplify tasks, he said. That would be a low-road approach. Conversely, when unemployment is high, they will hire only the most highly skilled applicants, giving them the option to make jobs more complex — a high-road strategy. (Whether they actually properly pay people for the more complex work is harder to answer.)

Hershbein told me that the average quality of new jobs has risen over the past 15 or so years in a ratchet pattern: increasing in periods of high unemployment and not going all the way back in periods of low unemployment. He has built an index that finds more hiring in high-wage occupations than in low-wage occupations. That’s happening even in industries that have reputations for low pay, he said: “In leisure and hospitality, it’s not just wait staff and cooks. You have market analysis — where should I open a restaurant? — and consultants on décor and food.”

The Job Quality Measurement Initiative plans to release its findings in September. Korberg said she would love to see an index of job quality included in the monthly jobs report. On the other hand, the B.L.S. has a tight budget — Groshen, commissioner of the agency from 2013 to 2017, said it hasn’t conducted a survey of employer-provided training since 1995. She also notes that some aspects of job quality, such as upward mobility, can be calculated only in retrospect. (You can’t tell if people can move up until they have actually done so, which takes years.)