To Expand Access To Quality Jobs, We Need A Without Limits Approach
The U.S. unemployment rate continues to sit at a near-record low of 3.7%, and the number of job openings across the country is quite high—more than 10 million as of the last jobs report. However, while these numbers might paint a picture of a strong economy with plenty of opportunities for advancement, I see three troubling realities […]
The U.S. unemployment rate continues to sit at a near-record low of 3.7%, and the number of job openings across the country is quite high—more than 10 million as of the last jobs report. However, while these numbers might paint a picture of a strong economy with plenty of opportunities for advancement, I see three troubling realities hidden within them.
The first is that the youth unemployment rate exceeds national averages, especially in certain local economies. For example, while the national unemployment rate is the lowest in 60 years, New York City’s youth unemployment rate hit 18% recently, and it was 23% for young adults who identify as Asian.
Second, racial disparities persist. Black household wealth is 70% lower than non-Black households, and Black individuals earn one-third less than white individuals throughout their lifetimes.
Third, despite the promising optics of high employment rates, 21 million U.S. workers make less than $15 per hour.
These realities point to an even bigger problem. While overall unemployment rates are low, too many jobs created in this economy are not quality jobs.
According to an analysis by my organization, Jobs for the Future (JFF), of the 164 million people in the U.S. adult labor force, 130 million face systemic barriers to advancement, including people without a four-year degree, people of color, women of all backgrounds with a four-year degree, and people with criminal records. Just 38 million work in what we would consider quality jobs—meaning roles that not only provide a decent wage and basic benefits but also offer stability, flexibility, autonomy, and equitable opportunities for economic advancement.
That means there are currently 92 million adults shut out of quality jobs and the chance for a better life that those kinds of jobs offer.
Employers, educators, policymakers, community organizers, and others must work together to transform our nation’s systems to ensure everyone, regardless of background, has an opportunity to advance economically. Here are four ideas for thinking without limits—beyond the current constraints of our systems—to drive transformational change and help millions of people move into quality jobs.
Seize the Next Frontier of Technology
I believe that technology—specifically artificial intelligence—can play a big role in expanding access to quality jobs for people from populations currently underserved by our education and workforce systems.
Learners and workers know that AI will be life-changing, but they’re uncertain how things will play out. According to initial findings of a nationally representative survey that Morning Consult conducted on behalf of JFF, more than 58% of respondents said they believe they will need to upgrade their skills in the next five years as a result of AI, but of those surveyed, 88% said they don’t trust their employers to help them understand AI. The need to better understand the impact of AI on work and workers and share best practices is exactly why my organization recently launched a new Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work.
While technology is likely to change the nature of many jobs, it also has the potential to create new opportunities for workers with various levels of education and training. According to a new JFF report it’s more likely that people will need skills they learn on the job, or maybe in short-term training programs, not four-year college degrees, to succeed in careers that involve extended reality (XR) technologies. According to that report, 40% of the more than 40,000 job postings mentioning XR or similar technologies required only a high school education or an associate’s degree. Some even had no education requirements at all.
Technology will be a major lever for innovation in work and learning, but we must intentionally emphasize equity in efforts to expand access to quality jobs to ensure rapid technology advances don’t reinforce, or even expand, existing racial and ethnic gaps in achievement, employment, or wealth.
For example, Black workers are currently significantly underrepresented in the tech sector. Black people make up 12% of the U.S. workforce but only 8% of the tech workforce. And while the number of jobs in the tech sector could grow by more than 14% in the next decade, the pool of Black tech talent is only expected to grow by 8% during that period.
When we surveyed Black workers about the lack of Black representation in the IT workforce, most said they would be more likely to pursue jobs in tech if they had better ways of accessing information about those jobs, as well as access to professional networks and academic and career services.
Gender inequity is a very real problem as well. For example, in youth apprenticeship, a significant pay gap exists between the top occupations for women (pharmacy technicians paid $12 per hour) and the top occupations for men (electricians paid $26 per hour).
One way to advance equity in the labor market is to encourage employers to embrace skills-based hiring. More people will have access to quality jobs if employers remove the seemingly ubiquitous college degree requirement.
Invest in Human Potential
Embracing skills-based hiring is a way of investing in human potential, which means focusing on everything workers bring to the table, including the skills they’ve learned on the job and in other activities, as well as their personal attributes, not just the degrees and credentials they’ve earned.
Last year, the Maryland state government made a big commitment to investing in human potential when, encouraged by Opportunity@Work’s Tear the Paper Ceiling campaign, officials removed college degree requirements from state jobs. The state had been having a hard time filling jobs, and in the first year after the change, hires increased 41%, according to former Governor Larry Hogan. Since then, 11 other states have followed suit. Removing degree requirements has opened up more than 100,000 jobs across these states in the past year.
Investing in human potential also means not passing judgment on people for things they may have done in the past that had negative consequences.
Run by formerly incarcerated individuals, Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison offers college education, life skills training, and community reentry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Some 1,500 students have taken part in Hudson Link programs since its founding in 1998, and its recidivism rate is just 2% compared to 40% nationally.
When there’s less focus on gatekeeping and more emphasis on skills and potential, deserving candidates get quality jobs.
The last imperative is redesigning the systems responsible for preparing learners and workers for the jobs of tomorrow.
One example driven by the private sector is Google’s Career Certificates program which allows people who don’t have a four-year degree to build the skills they need to land a quality job in IT. Google partners with more than 200 nonprofits and 400 educational institutions to deliver the certificate training, which covers in-demand skills in six IT specialties with more than 2.5 million jobs available. Their median salary is more than $72,000 per year.
Google partners with several large employers, including American Express, Deloitte, Walmart, and Verizon, that offer job opportunities to people who complete certificate coursework. More than 76% of the 150,000 graduates of Google’s certificate programs report positive career outcomes, and 55% of the graduates identify as people of color.
On the public sector side, college and career pathways programs that combine academic instruction and work-based learning experiences offer another promising model. These programs are gaining momentum: In Delaware, more than 60% of high school students are on such a pathway.
These four imperatives can put millions more workers in good jobs. Now, it’s on all of us—employers, philanthropists, educators, and innovators across the learn-and-work ecosystem—to take action, question assumptions about what’s possible, and drive the kind of transformative change we need to get there.
Article written by: Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family.
Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.