Must Read Blog June 24, 2021

Workforce in Flux: Racial Equity and the Workforce

The moral and economic imperative to close racial equity gaps is gaining warranted and newfound momentum across the workforce sector.

If you attended JFF’s Horizons conference last week, you probably noticed the explicit focus on the intersection of racial equity and workforce issues weaved throughout the conference’s main sessions. Perspectives on how race factors into the education system, the workforce development system, and corporate agendas were shared by a diverse range of thinkers and leaders. Byron Auguste (CEO, Opportunity@Work) and Ibram X. Kendi (Director, BU Center for Antiracist Research) emphasized that recognizing the structural and systemic nature of how racism leads to labor market inequalities is the first step to addressing them. Dalila Wilson-Scott (Chief Diversity Officer, Comcast) and Maurice Jones (CEO, OneTen) offered tangible examples from their work driving corporate DEI agendas at scale of how businesses can assume proactive roles in helping to close persistent racial equity gaps.

Even as the U.S. economy settles into its new post-pandemic normal and Washington signals greater explicit support for racial equity initiatives, myriad labor market gaps between White workers and Black and Hispanic workers remain. The BLS’s recently released June unemployment figures show a four percentage point difference between the unemployment rates of Black and White workers. Even when controlling for educational attainment, racial discrepancies remain stark within unemployment rates. But persistent unemployment gaps are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether we’re talking about wealth, income, ability to work remotely, or student debt, the story remains the same: at every strata of society, learners and workers who are Black or Hispanic face greater barriers and experience lesser outcomes than their White peers.

From our vantage point, Horizons captured the zeitgeist of the past year. But just in the past six months, we’ve seen momentum steadily building around organizations, collaborations, and movements meant to drive impact at the intersection of racial equity and workforce.

The philanthropic community has come together via the Workforce Matters Funders Network to codify and publish best practices to guide philanthropic funding across the learn-to-work ecosystem in a way that addresses racial equity gaps. The corporate community has banded together via nonprofit collaborations like OneTen, through which 35+ of the country’s largest and most influential companies have explicitly committed to working with education and workforce development actors at the local level to develop, retain, and advance diverse and underrepresented talent. And dedicated nonprofits like Opportunity@Work have produced high-quality research and data that help quantify the need and potential impact of policy and practice changes aimed to uplift Black and Hispanic workers.

Fixing the imperatives of education, economic, and employment racial equity gaps will require shifts in both the mindsets and practices of educators, funders, and companies. These efforts are part and parcel of the broader anti-racism and racial justice movements that have grown to historical proportions over the past year. We commend both the leaders and fast followers throughout the learn-to-work ecosystem doing their part to push forward this important work.