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Prioritizing a workforce agenda for economic recovery

Prioritizing a workforce agenda for economic recovery
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Amid America’s racial reckoning, the incoming administration will be forced to grapple with the reality of how structural racism privileges the lives of one group over others.

With COVID-19 exacerbating long standing economic inequality and digital divides, there’s a real need for a policy agenda centering people of color to drive the future of work and workers. But even as attention to equity has proliferated, policies to address the deleterious impacts of systemic racism have been far too often absent.

Workers of color represent a majority of all home health, fast food and restaurant jobs that while considered “in-demand,” pay salaries averaging only about $25,000 per year; whereas white workers are overrepresented in jobs that pay over six figures, including financial managers, nurse practitioners and software developers. Skills-based training preferences for growing occupations gives workers of color a false choice of economic mobility when a quality job isn’t guaranteed. 

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Lawmakers and other influencers generally resort to “skills gaps” or human capital differences to explain job market inequities. Indeed, those with higher education levels are much more likely to have more job security and earn higher incomes than those without. Thus, the expectation that more education will lead to better jobs, with training to improve skills offers a seemingly simple way to deal with racial inequality in the labor market.

It is certainly true that investments in high-quality workforce training, such as work-based learning, will be important components of an economic recovery. But skills-based policies alone are insufficient in supporting a more equitable recovery and future. Persistent differential returns to skills attainment exist, such as a significant racial wealth gap, even after taking education into consideration. In addition, even for those holding advanced degrees, Blacks and Latinos experience higher unemployment rates compared with their white counterparts, with the same level of educational attainment. Importantly, because education and training programs aren’t systemically linked with equitable employment outcomes, workforce policy has had a particularly racialized impact on people of color. 

Even with avowed commitments to equity, promoting the personal responsibility of workers to improve their own skills sheds light on the persistence of the false bootstrapping narrative that predominates in workforce development, with policy choices predicated on a “self-sufficiency” approach that have the effect of marginalizing groups of people as somehow deficient. The racialization of job training is veiled by talk of improving access to skills training and credential attainment that’s assumed to benefit every individual equally.

In this context, a closer examination of the role workforce policy has played in maintaining white privilege is required; that attempts to expand access to employment by merely increasing funding for existing training programs tracked to in-demand but low-wage work keeps people of color churning in bad jobs. The norms of skills-based policymaking provide insight into the hidden nature of whiteness in the workforce and how it reinforces occupational segregation in the labor market, the institutional power and racially biased practices that contribute to growing equity gaps in the first place.

So, what does a workforce agenda centering people of color look like?

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To start, the upshot for the workers of color is that it pays to improve job quality. For example, labor-management training partnerships have been instrumental in raising employment standards in the long-term care industry. Through these partnerships, wages have gone up, fringe benefits added, mechanisms for increasing worker voice on the job have been instituted and safety measures and predictable scheduling are now standard practice. These gains have particularly benefited women of color, the largest demographic group in the direct care workforce.

Enabling job quality standards then means standing up cooperative workforce partnerships and other race-conscious practices at scale. Specifically, the new administration should undertake regulatory action such as surveying and measuring the creation of good jobs for workers of color. For instance, the Department of Labor could establish a task force led by people of color to seek local community perspectives to come up with guidelines the workforce system would follow for developing multiple job quality metrics.

Requiring racial proportionality in all employment-related outcomes of the workforce system, such as earnings gains and employer-provided training, offers another approach the new administration could take for systematically reversing the overrepresentation of people of color in low-wage work. The new administration could also establish a federal demonstration project to encourage workforce equity innovation at the state and local levels by creating training trust funds, portable benefit platforms and apprenticeship utilization requirements. 

Prioritizing a workforce agenda that truly centers people of color signals a new direction for policymaking — one that requires the public workforce system not to merely focus on skills-based programs but to ensure quality job gains for all workers. In turn, workforce development is less about pushing workers into any in-demand job but enabling cooperation between workers and employers to improve job conditions and together, increase equality in the labor market. Otherwise, without these priorities, the rhetoric of equity is just all talk. 

Marie Kurose is CEO of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County. Livia Lam is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.