Published on Let's Talk Development

“Show up on time and you will get a raise”: Labor market impacts of a conscientiousness-related training program

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Workers climing a ladder. | © sol / Unsplash Low-cost interventions targeting psychological traits may positively impact key labor market outcomes of low-skilled workers. | © sol / Unsplash

Sometimes it’s not about having the most technical skills or being the best at a task, but it’s about the basics of being a reliable worker. Conscientious employees work hard, show up on time, and behave responsibly. Conscientiousness has long been recognized to be one of the key traits for labor market success (see here, here, and here). But how do we encourage this personality trait? In West Africa, we find that a conscientiousness-related training program increased job retention and earnings for low-skill workers.


Can we change our key personality traits as adults?

Until recently, personality traits were considered immutable in adulthood. We have now seen that mindfulness and behavioral change techniques can help to shift beliefs and behaviors that can lead to lasting changes. In our paper, we test whether conscientiousness-related training programs for low-skilled workers in Senegal can affect labor market outcomes. While there is evidence on the potential of targeting specific skills, such as personal initiative and generalized self-efficacy, to our knowledge this is the first paper studying the labor market impacts of a psychological intervention targeted at affecting conscientiousness in the field.


Why might conscientiousness be important for low-skilled workers?

Imagine the construction of urban rail infrastructure in a low-income context, where the construction company hires workers to work on barriers that limit site entry. Their job consists of relatively simple tasks: staying at their posts, checking the badges of individuals and vehicles that request site entry, and keeping the site orderly and safe. The job requires few skills yet the potential costs of a worker failing to do their job are high: construction materials and machinery could be stolen, or there could be sabotage of the whole construction project. Success in this job hinges on workers exhibiting conscientious behaviors like alerting their manager if they will be late or unable to come to their post. It is easy to imagine a wide range of jobs in sectors outside construction with similar characteristics. With 230 to 450 million new workers expected to enter the labor force in Africa by 2030, non-traditional training interventions focusing on non-cognitive skills might have the potential to play a valuable role in securing jobs and improving labor market outcomes for this new generation of workers.


How do we target conscientiousness?

Combining approaches from both psychology and economics, we based our intervention on recent advances in psychology and trait intervention. Along with our coauthors Brent Roberts and Mathias Allemand, we developed a training intervention based on the Sociogenomic Trait Intervention Model (STIM). The training consisted of an initial two-hour, in-person session on how to be more conscientious at work, followed by weekly phone reminders in the eight subsequent weeks. During the initial session, workers were explained different concepts regarding conscientiousness, with an emphasis on how improvements in such skills can translate into long-term benefits. The subsequent phone calls were less than a minute long and were composed of a randomized set of reminders on how to engage in conscientious behavior.


We test this training with a sample of 386 workers employed in the construction of a new express train in Dakar, Senegal. Half of the workers were randomly assigned to the treatment group. Workers were mainly employed as security agent helpers, laborers, and masons. The examples during the training and the phone messages were tailored to the specific job requirements of these workers.


What do we find?

Nine months after the intervention, workers in the treatment group were 10 percent more likely to have kept their job at the construction company and received 32 USD higher earnings (a 22.7 percent increase versus average endline earnings of the control group) compared to workers in the control group. We interpret these results as evidence that our conscientiousness intervention impacted labor market outcomes of workers in the treatment group.


We also measured conscientiousness-related skills and other psychological traits before and after the intervention. We don’t find that these self-reported measures were significantly affected, which we attribute to high average reported measures due to possible response biases, such as social desirability bias. Adapting psychometric surveys to these contexts should be a key focus for future research.


What next?

Overall, our results suggest that low-cost (about 24 USD per participant) interventions targeting psychological traits may positively impact key labor market outcomes of low-skilled workers. This has implications for low-income countries with high job turnover rates, and where limited state capacity may reduce the size and scope of other training programs. Additionally, this study demonstrates an opportunity for governments investing in large infrastructure projects to increase the impact of these projects, even at the construction phase, by incorporating this type of low-cost training for hired workers. Not only are workers better off, but it may lead to productivity gains for the project that could cut down construction time. Future research could look at these potential benefits.

The research has been funded with UK aid from the UK government through the ieConnect for Impact program and Research Support Budget through the Development Economics Vice Presidency at the World Bank. The coauthors of the paper, in alphabetical order, are Mathias Allemand, Martina Kirchberger, Sveta Milusheva, Carol Newman, Brent Roberts, and Vincent Thorne. We thank Mame Diarra Bousso Sarr, Marion Sagot and Paola Elice for field coordination and Aram Gassama, Meyhar Mohammed, Marine Nelly Cecile Colon de Franciosi and Meriem Fouad for research support and assistance. We are grateful to CETUD, APIX, Eiffage Rail Senegal, and the Islamic Development Bank for their support in coordinating and implementing the work. 

Martina Kirchberger

Ussher Assistant Professor in Economics, Trinity College

Sveta Milusheva

Senior Economist, Development Impact Evaluation

Carol Newman

Professor in Economics, Trinity College Dublin

Vincent Thorne

Postdoctoral Researcher, Paris School of Economics

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