The only sounds Aldo Prado hears at work are the jingle of keys and the squeak of the wheels on his garbage can. An artist and once a high school teacher in Cuba with a master's degree in history and philosophy, he now works the night shift as a janitor at the University of Texas in Austin.
It's depressing, he says. Cuba won't vouch for the education or professional experience of those who escape that nation. Although he has exhibited paintings in Cuba and Austin, his managers at work don't treat him with respect.
Welcome to the world of "dirty work."
This is the demanding work that most people shun. Sometimes, it's physically dirty and poorly paid, like janitorial labor. Other times, it's better-paid but carries a stigma. Prison guards and drug counselors fall into this category.
Either way, the jobs are hard to fill. And as the economy grows, the pressure grows on employers to find more recruits. New research suggests that companies will have to find ways to destigmatize these positions.
Surprisingly, the task may prove easier than it looks.
"Even though society stigmatizes these jobs as 'dirty work,' most of these workers take quite a bit of pride in identifying with the job they do," says Joanna Newman, a researcher at the University of Arkansas' business school who has surveyed more than 700 of what she calls dirty workers. "The more identified a person is with his or her organization, the less he or she will internalize negative stereotypes, the lower the rate of turnover will be, and the more satisfied he or she will be in the job."
Take John Andersen, a carpet cleaner in Portland, Ore. "When you're a professional cleaner, no one believes you have any brains," he says. Yet, he found satisfaction by buying his own cleaning franchise a decade ago. He now owns an independent carpet and upholstery business.
Dirty jobs represent a new way of looking at the labor force. While economists agree there are some 30 million low-paying, dead-end jobs, dirty work involves a broader - and less well-defined - category of employee.
"Dirty work is defined as any job that is physically, morally, or socially tainted," Ms. Newman says. Although it often falls to poorly paid immigrants, it includes bill collectors, who are better paid and yet not held in high regard, and morticians, who are well-paid (earning roughly $9,000 more a year than the median salary, according to census figures) but whose profession contains a high "yuck" factor.
Dirty work can be stressful, even dangerous.
"The most rewarding thing about the job is going home at night uninjured and knowing that the rest of my staff went home safely," says Russell King, a former prison guard who worked on death row in Huntsville, Texas, and later at a county jail. "The people on death row are people who the public wants to be rid of and forgotten. These people had no regard for human life and certainly did not care about mine."
Even the jail could be dangerous. One night, a man who had taken the drug PCP was brought in and attacked Mr. King and another guard. "We struggled with him for 10 minutes but weren't able to subdue him until a third deputy was called in," he recalls. "The prisoner was placed in a padded cell but smashed the safety glass [of the] viewing window. We were worried he would hurt himself with the sharp glass. When we entered the room, he threatened us using a piece of glass as a knife. Luckily, we subdued him again without getting cut or stabbed."
Sociologists suggest that individuals in occupations that society looks down upon will be less likely to identify with their jobs or take pride in their jobs.
But this scenario doesn't always hold true, say Newman and other University of Arkansas researchers. They found there was a difference between workers being aware of a stigma and internalizing it. "People can be aware that others have stereotypes of them, but do you accept them? Do you believe them? That's the key," Newman says.
An individual's personality and attitude, they found, play a large part. People who are very aware of others' opinions and easily pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues are more likely to internalize negative stereotypes and therefore be unhappy in their jobs. But personality is only a part of the internalization equation.
Employers "can provide positive messages about the job to their employees that can help to counter the negative stereotypes," says Anne O'Leary-Kelly, a University of Arkansas professor. "This helps employees to reframe the way in which they perceive their work."
Employers can help workers avoid internalizing negative stereotypes by creating a strong organizational culture. Shared values, rituals, and traditions help to forge bonds between employees.
Mr. King says the jail guards at the sheriff's department occasionally did things together to relieve stress. "The best thing about the job was the camaraderie with my fellow workers," he recalls.
Competence is another important aspect of job satisfaction. "Even though an individual may know he or she is working in a devalued field, they derive a sense of pride from knowing that they are very good at what they do," Newman explains. "So a sense of his or her own competence can influence a jobholder's internalization of the job's negative perceptions."
Many employers now offer training programs that encourage employees to expand their knowledge and skills.
The most important factor helping workers overcome job-related stigmas is family support, Newman adds. "When the family is supportive of the profession, it can reaffirm the positive aspects of the job and act as a shield against the negative stereotypes that society can communicate."
Of course, one solution to job stigma is to find better work. Some steps are obvious, such as career counseling, returning to school, and networking.
But workers shouldn't ignore the job-building potential of their current positions, says Randall Hansen, a professor and career expert at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. "What will help them ... move to better jobs is to sit down and grasp that their jobs - as well as everything else they do - have transferable skills. For example, communications is one broad category of transferable skills and includes things like listening, writing, speaking, and expressing ideas. Another is workplace survival skills, and includes things like cooperation, attention to detail, and being punctual."
In other words, dirty jobs need not be a trap; they can be steppingstones.