Gary Fields, Professor, Labor Economics
Beginning in his graduate school days at the University of Michigan where he was training to be a labor economist, ILR Labor Economics Professor Gary Fields began an active and lifelong engagement with public service, research and teaching activities on issues that span the developing world. The majority of his work on labor market models, economic mobility and bottom-line management has focused on Africa, Latin America and East Asia.
When Professor Fields and I met in early April he had just returned from a two-week field study and conference in South Africa. Professor Fields was one of four Faculty members from Cornell University’s Poverty, Inequality and Development Initiative (PID) to make this trip. The Cornell team, plus ten others from the United States, India, and South Africa, have been meeting together since 2004 to understand better the experiences of working people in developing countries and design policies to improve their economic opportunities. This year Professor Fields, along with Martha Chen from Harvard University and WIEGO, lived with a working woman and her family for two days and nights in a village outside of Durban, South Africa. Their host lady, Masibisi Majola, sold bead work in the market, and her husband and older son made leather Zulu shields among other things to earn a living. Professor Fields and the other participants then had a conference to compare their experiences, after which they met with the government of South Africa to report on what they had learned and how the lives of these people could be improved. Many ILR students, myself included, can recite a past on-the-ground experience Professor Fields had in Ahmedabad, India in 2004, living with a woman who rolled tobacco cigarettes to earn a living. The impact this story and the labor economics principles taught through it creates an everlasting impression on students in Professor Fields’ classes.
For the last 35 years Professor Fields has been actively engaged in different facets of employment and labor economics in developing countries. He spent a year researching this issue in Nairobi, Kenya for his Ph.D. dissertation research. In 1975, he lived in Colombia studying income distribution and the labor market there. Then, beginning in the early 1980s, he studied export oriented economic growth and the effect of economic growth on workers and their wages. Professor Fields found that in Latin America, a region of the world known for very high inequality, economic growth benefits workers. Other similar studies in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan have shown that in East Asian economies the workers benefit at about the same rate as their economies as a whole. Real wages rise with the rest of the economy and the standard of living improves rapidly for workers in all parts of the income distribution. How poverty, inequality, income mobility, and economic well-being change in the course of economic growth have been the subject of several of his books including Poverty, Inequality, and Development, Pathways Out of Poverty, and Distribution and Development.
Studies such as these are shared through reports, presentations, articles, books and government meetings. Professor Fields is involved at present in a number of projects on employment and labor markets with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Global Development Network. The impact of his work and collaboration can be illustrated through examples such as the following. Findings from a study on South Africa’s informal sector led the government to highlight the importance of that sector as a means of improving poor persons’ earning opportunities. As another example, Professor Fields and the ILR School’s strong alumni network in South Korea led to collaborative advisory roles in which he helped to establish South Korea’s minimum wage and employment security systems.
Professor Fields teaches Labor Economics with a strong emphasis on bottom-line management, something that he developed based on his work advising in the public sector and serving as a department chairman at Cornell. He also teaches a course on Labor Markets and Income Distribution in Developing Countries to upperclassman and graduate students, a Ph.D. course on Economic Development, and a Ph.D. research workshop on Labor Markets in Comparative Perspective that allows advanced graduate students the opportunity to present their work at all stages, an excellent preparation for the job market.
Professor Fields’ tireless commitment to international labor market issues, especially in developing countries, continues to contribute to the international breadth and depth of the ILR School through his outreach, research, and teaching. I’d like to thank Professor Fields for taking the time to meet with me.
Dina Gabriel, MILR 07
- Gary Fields, Professor, Labor Economics