For Kevin Conner, it’s personal.

His grandfather, a framing carpenter in Oklahoma, worked for the same company for 25 years, building houses that provided shelter to countless families. But when he suffered a stroke that stripped him of his ability to do his job, he found himself without a safety net. With neither a pension nor significant retirement savings, social security and disability payments were his only source of income.

He and Conner’s grandmother moved in with Conner and his parents.  

“That job hampered him physically but also economically so that when he was in his 60s and almost in his 70s, he didn’t really get a retirement,” he said. 

His grandfather’s plight stuck with Conner. As have the situations of other loved ones burdened by occupation-related economic and health challenges. His father, also a framing carpenter, and his mother, a home health aid, have grappled with their own health problems stemming from decades of wear and tear in physically demanding careers. 

Their collective experiences inform and fuel the passion to which he’s devoted his professional life: labor economics. His work focuses on how the “rules of the game” in the market — a societal construct rather than naturally occurring, contrary to what people often think — enable or constrain different actors’ economic behavior, which trickles down into significant ramifications for workers.  

And now he is examining the topic through a lens even more directly applicable to the challenges his family members have faced: occupational safety and health.

After earning a PhD in economics in 2022, Conner accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at RMCOEH, where he is applying his expertise to the center’s mission of improving workers’ lives. 

“I’m really interested in job quality as this holistic thing,” he said, recounting the story of his parents and grandfather, “because there’s a human element to it.”

Path to economics

Given his family’s blue-collar history, Conner’s path to becoming an academic hardly seemed obvious. 

His father never went to college. His mother didn’t finish high school, instead receiving a GED. His mother’s mother didn’t know how to read. 

But even from a young age, Conner has always been drawn to learning. He described himself as “incredibly bookish,” and he’s gifted with a rare intellectual curiosity that becomes apparent within minutes of striking a conversation with him. His interest in economics sparked during the 2008 housing crisis, when he watched his father’s career disappear essentially overnight. The notion of pursuing a doctorate in the discipline and spending his life studying it emerged later as he read about the evolution of economic thought, from the Middle Ages when people viewed profit as evil through the rise of modern capitalism. 

Still today, he finds fascination in the connection between the history of economics and its current implications.

“A lot of what I do,” he said, “is bringing that historical basis into more practical, day-to-day labor economics.” 

After completing his undergraduate studies in economics and mathematics at the University of Oklahoma, he left the Sooner State to pursue his PhD at the University of Utah. True to his roots, he used his dissertation to examine the economic lives and employment situations of a particularly vulnerable group: gig workers, such as rideshare drivers. They are at risk of being left behind economically, but they also often face heightened health and safety concerns compared to their peers working traditional jobs. The companies they work for don’t have a financial interest in ensuring they don’t get injured or develop job-related health problems.

“A lot of that labor market is about diminishing the relationship between an employer and an employee,” he said. “By shedding workers outside the boundaries of the firm, you also kind of shed all the legal responsibilities of being an employer, which, you know, includes things like occupational health and safety.”

It was near the end of Conner’s PhD program, though, that he delved into research more directly related to occupational safety and health. Peter Phillips, PhD, his mentor and a longtime professor in the U’s Department of Economics, invited him to collaborate on a project examining how business practices in construction, such as subcontracting, influence rates of injuries and illnesses in the industry.

Conner found the research compelling, and it opened the door to a different kind of opportunity: leaving behind the comfort of being surrounded by fellow economists and embedding himself among professionals from a different, unfamiliar discipline.

‘A true collaborator’

To Matthew Thiese, PhD, the director of RMCOEH’s Occupational Injury Prevention program, Conner’s arrival at the center in January 2023 was something of a watershed moment.

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Kevin Conner is a postdoctoral fellow at RMCOEH. He arrived at the center after earning his PhD in economics, bringing a background that enables him to study occupational safety and health through a different lens than other RMCOEH trainees and faculty.

He described RMCOEH as a gem that reflects light on important areas within occupational and environmental health and safety that need attention. Conner is the center’s first trainee — at least in recent memory — with the education and expertise to augment the light to include economics, a discipline whose scope has untold ramifications for the safety and health of workers.  

“By having Kevin and the skills and experience that he brings, it adds an entire other facet,” said Thiese, who works closely with Conner through RMCOEH’s Targeted Research Training program. “To be able to shine light and bring in light from other areas that we were either completely unable to do or only had inklings of doing is tremendous.”

For his part, Conner has found stepping into occupational safety and health fascinating. Whereas economics is often focused on the 20,000-foot view, occupational safety and health professionals are “very much in the nitty gritty of it,” evaluating risks to workers and devising pragmatic interventions to keep them safe. He has enjoyed learning about that dynamic, as well as the tendency in occupational safety and health to view employers and employees as having an aligned interest — protecting workers — which frequently isn’t the case in economics more generally.

“There’s a greater tendency in the occupational health and safety space to really try to sell a mutually beneficial solution to a particular problem,” he said. “I find that really admirable.”

He has also been cognizant of avoiding a pattern that, he says, economists have a reputation for: parachuting into another discipline, telling its practitioners that they’re doing everything wrong, then vanishing as quickly as they appeared. 

“I came in here with a lot of humility,” he said.

In contrast to that stereotype, Conner has taken an opposite approach. Thiese said Conner’s presence at RMCOEH has been energizing, describing him as a “true collaborator” whose instinct is to roll up his sleeves, dig into issues, and explore where he can bring value to a research project. 

Thiese relishes the opportunity to be part of that kind of a research partnership.  

“Something he says will trigger something in me where it builds on each other,” he said, depicting their process of collaboration as being in a flow state where ideas manifest one after the other. “It’s way more than just the sum of two parts of a conversation. That’s relatively rare in research, unfortunately.”

Conner has dug into a few research projects thus far at RMCOEH, including one in which he is aiming to trace how monopsonies — where there is only one buyer of something, in contrast to monopolies, where there is only one supplier — in the trucking industry result in lower wages and, ultimately, increased rates of injuries and accidents.

He has also taken on a mentorship role for many of the center’s master’s and PhD students, including through creating a writing group for the students to receive feedback on projects they’re working on. Fostered by Conner’s measured demeanor, the group is a place for the students, many of whom lack extensive writing experience, to become more confident in their writing, as well as receive a dose of encouragement as they wade through their theses, dissertations, or other projects. 

In his view, it can be easy for senior faculty in academia to forget the struggles they experienced as graduate students. For RMCOEH’s students, being able to tap into the wisdom of someone who’s close to a peer can be a crucial lifeline. 

And he would know about the importance of mentors — without them, he said, he would not have made it through his own undergraduate training, much less his PhD program.  

“I found people I trusted and liked working with and put myself in the same room as them as often as I possibly could,” he said.

What the future holds

Conner is in no hurry to depart RMCOEH. He has found camaraderie with his colleagues and has visions of tackling a few longer-term research projects related to occupational health and safety. His aspiration, though, is to eventually work at a research center or become a professor, which would marry his passion for research with his love of teaching and mentoring. 

“Honestly, I just want to do work that I feel is important and that can move the needle policy-wise a little bit,” he said. 

Thiese sees unlimited potential in Conner and is certain he will thrive in any career he pursues. But count him among those who view Conner as being an ideal fit for academia given his intellectual talent as well as his ability to communicate in a way that draws people in and helps them see topics from a different perspective. 

“He has the demeanor, the skillset, the curiosity, the patience,” he said. “He enjoys teaching, he enjoys working with students, he enjoys digging into ones and zeros and analyzing data — he has a great set of chops in analyzing data.”

Whatever path Conner takes, there will be two people rooting harder than anyone else for his success: his parents back home in Oklahoma. They did not have the educational opportunities he did, nor will they be among the many workers who stand to benefit from the research he is conducting. 

But Conner said they are thrilled to see their son carve out a career for himself where he can devote his talent and passion into work that makes a difference for people who don’t always have someone advocating for their economic or physical well-being. 

They are proud. So proud, in fact, that when he completed his PhD, “it was a fight for a while to get them not to call me ‘doctor.’” 

“I’m glad I finally won that one,” he said, “but it was uncomfortable for a bit.”

If the impression he has made at RMCOEH is any indication — and Thiese would suggest it is — they will have plenty more to be proud about as Conner’s career progresses and he leaves his mark on economics.

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