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Students push for labor in MBA programs

Should business schools focus more on the front line?

James Sinegal, center right, cofounder and retired CEO of Costco Wholesale, speaks to a class at the MIT Sloan School of Management. At left is Professor Zeynep Ton.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
James Sinegal (center), cofounder and retired CEO of Costco Wholesale, speaks to a class at the MIT Sloan School of Management. To his left is MIT professor Zeynep Ton.

As business schools mold future CEOs and managers, are they neglecting frontline workers? Three current MBA students posed that question in a recent Globe Magazine column.

The writers — Megan Larcom and Jenny Weissbourd, who graduate this month from MIT’s Sloan School of Management; and Jeremy Avins, who will graduate from Stanford Graduate School of Business — say that business schools have contributed to wage stagnation by treating workers as a mere cost of doing business. The writers said they heard from many people who read the column regarding their call for change, including from business school faculty and business managers across the country.

But some MIT professors pointed out that, while there’s much room for improvement, several current courses at the school do spotlight workers’ issues. On Monday, at an elective management class taught by Zeynep Ton, an adjunct associate professor, around 80 students applauded a retired CEO known for treating workers fairly. Ton’s students have been discussing front-line worker management throughout the semester.

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James Sinegal, cofounder and former CEO of Costco Wholesale, told students his goal is that “no one is going to say that we are making money off the backs of our employees.” Sinegal said Costco’s US employees earn, on average, $22 per hour, almost $9 more than the $13.20 national average hourly wage for retail workers reported in May 2017 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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He credited the store’s success to “good people,” who he defined as employees who stayed for years because they had a decent salary and health care package, and loved the job.

“This is not altruism,” he said. “This is just good business.”

Students also heard from Todd Miner, a Costco store manager who started as a meat cutter 15 years ago and is now a meat manager at the Waltham outpost. Miner said the company culture still has a family feel to it, though it has grown to 226,000 employees worldwide.

“I know what it is to work for other chains, [and] it’s really difficult to beat what you have at Costco,” Miner said.

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Ton told her students that Sinegal “shows humility and integrity, and a sense of purpose that is so rare to see in business.”

Sinegal, second from right, leads students from the Sloan School class through the Waltham Costco store.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff
Sinegal (at right) leads students from the Sloan School class through the Waltham Costco store.

In another MIT Sloan class, students interview front-line workers about their expectations of management. The professor also brings in a local union leader and the founders of OUR Walmart, an organization that advocates for workers’ rights. And in a new Action Learning course, students will work with nonprofits in rural communities in the Midwest to address workforce issues, such as providing better day-care programs for low-income families.

However, only a handful of classes this spring actively taught worker management, Weissbourd observed.

Tom Kochan, a Sloan professor of work and organization studies and co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, said he plans to discuss management courses at an upcoming faculty retreat.

“One topic is focused on what we might do to expand our online teaching, and I will report on our experiences in linking our MBAs to the workforce,” he said in an e-mail.

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“We think Sloan is taking really important steps, but there’s a lot of room for growth,” Weissbourd said about Sloan’s current course offerings. She noted that MIT faculty are always researching and innovating.

“Part of what drove us to write the article is we feel that Sloan is well-positioned to lead this conversation,” she said.

Nicole DeFeudis is a Globe correspondent. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.