Michael Collins is a VP at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit focused on education and workforce development. Views are the author’s own.
As the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, perceptions of the labor market have bordered on rapturous. With far more open jobs than there are unemployed — and the national unemployment rate at a paltry 3.6% — millions of workers have taken advantage of unprecedented flexibility and career options and quit their jobs in droves.
The good times, it seems, couldn’t last long. Market watchers are now bracing for a looming recession, fueled by soaring inflation, rising borrowing costs, and plunging financial markets.
But for millions of Black workers, the good times never arrived in the first place. As a growing number of employees reveled in newfound opportunities, many Black workers have found their reasons for joining the Great Resignation to be far more urgent. These workers are pursuing new roles less by choice than out of immediate necessity amid stagnant career prospects and economic uncertainty.
The popular narrative of the Great Resignation has largely ignored Black workers. Now, with a recession on the horizon, their employment prospects are about to go from bad to worse. It’s past time for employers to look beyond the prevailing ideas surrounding the Great Resignation and acknowledge their recruitment practices are still not reaching Black workers.
We must tap into a larger pool of talent and transform this moment into the first step toward a more promising future for all workers.
For decades, the unemployment rate for Black Americans has consistently been double that of White Americans. Even at a historically low national unemployment rate, Black workers are concentrated in jobs associated with low wages.
This lack of opportunity has been a primary driver behind Black workers joining the Great Resignation. A recent University of Phoenix study found that while Black Americans are among the most likely to be actively looking for a new job and the most willing to quit their jobs before having another one lined up, they remain the most likely to live paycheck to paycheck. Half of Black Americans feel that COVID-19 has derailed their career.
Addressing these inequities begins with ensuring more Black Americans are entering the workforce with the in-demand skills, learning experiences, and social capital necessary to find and thrive in careers in the fastest-growing, highest-paying occupations. Occupational segregation is one of the primary drivers behind income inequality in the labor market. A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found Black students have been explicitly or implicitly excluded from college majors associated with careers in well-paying fields like technology and are instead graduating with majors like social work and community organization.
The resulting wage gap is stark. According to the study, Black learners who complete a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM-related major can earn more than double the amount annually of Black learners who completed a degree in subjects like psychology or social work.
Even so, significant equity gaps exist between Black learners who do earn STEM degrees and White STEM graduates. Employers must do more to tap available talent by connecting Black learners and graduates to work-based learning and other employment opportunities, as well as to mentorship programs and other initiatives that help them build critical networks that can open up career paths.
Strong professional networks are often the bedrock of successful careers, ensuring workers can not only find entry into an industry but can advance and move their careers forward. Mentorships are key. But Black Americans report rarely having mentors or sponsors. It’s a vicious cycle of exclusion.
It’s not just the C-suites at most major companies that remain overwhelmingly White: according to survey data from 24 companies with a total of 3.7 million employees conducted by McKinsey & Co., Black workers accounted for just 7% of managers. These workers need clear and transparent pathways to advancement, allowing them to not only gain access to higher-paying positions but also serve as critical mentors for the next generation of workers.
Companies can also work to deepen the pools of talent they are drawing from in the first place. According to research from Opportunity@Work, there are tens of millions of STARs — an industry term for workers “skilled through alternative routes” other than traditional four-year degree programs. These workers have been locked out of higher-earning jobs, despite having the skills and talent necessary to thrive in such careers.
Casting a wider net to include more workers who may lack a degree but have gained important skills and knowledge through community colleges, alternative learning options, or prior job experience allows employers to hire from a far more diverse pipeline of talent and set them on a path toward enriching careers. Employers must now re-imagine how they find and hire workers while redesigning the ways they support employees as they seek to advance their careers. The Great Resignation largely benefited only those with the finances, skills, and time to pursue greener pastures. A critical pool of untapped talent is being left behind, to the immense detriment of our economy on the whole.
With a serious — and potentially long-lasting — economic recession at our doorstep, the Great Resignation is fading and memories of the Great Recession are intensifying. We may realize too late that we missed an opportunity to fuel our economy by at last bringing all of the nation’s talent to the table.