In light of ongoing protests and calls for action against systemic racism, employers are considering how their organizations may perpetuate inequity at all levels.
Equitable learning and development is one way to ensure people of color have equitable access to employment opportunities including "middle-skill" jobs — which require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree — that make up more than half of the U.S. labor market, according to a 2019 report by the nonprofit National Skills Coalition (NSC).
Educational disparities limit individuals' access to these opportunities, however. NSC's report showed that 27% of U.S.-born black individuals and 28% of U.S.-born Latino individuals have attained an associate degree or higher, compared to 45% of U.S.-born white individuals and 64% of U.S.-born individuals of Asian and Pacific Island descent. Black Americans are also more likely to report certificates as their highest level of educational achievement compared to other racial groups, while black adults earn lower wages across all educational attainment levels, including apprenticeships, certificates, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees, per NSC.
"This is not a level playing field for people of color inside or outside the workplace," Cat Ward, managing director of JFFLabs, a division of workforce and education nonprofit Jobs for the Future, told HR Dive in an interview. "Now is a time when companies should really be examining, through a lens of equity and justice, their strategic approach to training, how they train, even who they're hiring and how they're sourcing their talent."
Improving equity in training doesn't mean that employers need to be directly involved in public policy decisions. In fact, employers can take several actions to improve the situation for people of color within their own company systems, Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at NSC and one of the authors of the 2019 report, told HR Dive in an interview.
A company might first ask whether its leaders, particularly managers, are being evaluated based on equity standards, Bergson-Shilcock said.
For example, evaluations could ask how managers are supporting employees of color, and whether managers are experiencing differential turnover between ethnic groups, she added. The latter is important to focus on because there may be factors that managers aren't aware of, like access to childcare or reliable transportation, causing such disparities.
Managers also influence how an employer handles promotion and training opportunities. Sometimes, the culture around these opportunities is such that "there's a tap on the shoulder" when senior employees want to inform junior colleagues that they might be a good fit for a promotion or additional training. "But the people they tap on the shoulder tend to remind them of themselves," Bergson-Shilcock said. "You can see how that would play out from an equity standpoint."
Essentially, employers need to instill a culture that provides better signaling to employees of color that they are good candidates for advancement within the organization, Ward said. That might include re-assessing certain qualifications: do candidates for promotion really need a traditional, four-year degree for a position that doesn't necessitate it?
An employer might even focus on how it can equip employees to succeed beyond their time at the organization. "Workers aren't going to stay with their companies the way they used to," Ward said. By offering marketable credentials or certificates to demonstrate skills, "companies can really help their people maintain their economic mobility," she noted.
Additionally, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities are often lacking for employees of color, particularly women of color, according to a January 2020 report by consulting firm FSG and research nonprofit PolicyLink. This can be problematic if training opportunities are reserved for workers whose managers advocate for them, Ward said, and a lack of diversity in leadership can exacerbate cultural barriers that prevent people of color from finding effective advocates.
Formal mentorships can help to bridge this gap, but Ward also advised employers to do workforce planning that charts objective career pathways for employees based on an organizations' future skill needs.
When forming a training or talent development partnership with an outside entity, like an educational institution or nonprofit, employers need to ask the right questions to ensure an equitable approach, Bergson-Shilcock said.
That includes asking potential partner organizations what kinds of data they collect on the participation of people of color. An equitable partner not only tracks such demographic data, but it also discloses any participation gaps and seeks out explanations for them, she explained.
"When you get new information, how do you change your behaviors and respond to the information you're getting?," Bergson-Shilcock gave as an example. "Who's running the program? If it's run by a homogenous group of leaders, you're probably missing out on a perspective that you should be getting."
Training programs also need to take into account the existence of a significant racial wealth gap in the U.S., Bergson-Shilcock said. If employees are paying tuition for the program, an employer might choose to offer an assistance policy that puts forth that money first, rather than reimbursing students at the end of a semester.
Make training part of larger D&I efforts
Each of an organization's activities should be tied to an overarching diversity and inclusion strategy. "The companies that are doing the best work around training right now recognize that talent is your core competitive advantage," Ward said. "They make it their exclusive goal to recruit and retain diverse talent."
To demonstrate that an organization is committed to this work, an employer will need to invest in equity and treat it as a core business component. "D&I work should not be treated as an elective," Bergson-Shilcock said. Employers, she added, must also ensure L&D teams report directly to senior executives.
Broadly, L&D professionals need to prepare for dramatic changes to the metrics they use to measure success as well, Ward said. The current economic and social climate has created a destabilizing environment for employers, she added, but this environment also presents an opportunity to rebuild existing systems to be more inclusive with diverse voices at the table.
"We don't want to look back from the new normal and think: we were given this opportunity to create a more just equitable future, and we blew it," Ward said. "We want to say we leaned into that movement … that we were presented with an opportunity to rewrite the future and we took it."