The past year has laid bare the systemic inequities that underpin the U.S. labor market. As the Economic Policy Institute put it last summer, “the magnitude and nature of [the pandemic’s] impact has been anything but universal.”
When the pandemic first devastated the economy last year, Black and Latino workers bore the brunt. As the country charts a path to recovery, those workers are still the most likely to be left behind. Of course, the pandemic didn’t create these challenges. Rather, it exacerbated existing — and longstanding — disparities. Black and Latino people are less likely to go to college, less likely to graduate and more likely to earn less over their lifetime than white people.
In 2019, the median net worth of a white household was 7.8 times greater than that of a Black household. As of the second quarter of 2020, white families (who represent 60% of the U.S. population) accounted for 84% of total household wealth, while Black families (who represent 13.4% of the U.S. population) only accounted for 4% of total household wealth. These differences reveal the impact of accumulated discrimination and inequality over many decades, which have only become more stark in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As it turns out, training is also not evenly distributed by race. Black people have limited access to vocational training and financial education from the beginning, according to Harvard Business School’s 2019 publication “African American Inequality in the United States,” placing them at a disadvantage at the get-go. That discrepancy, in addition to personal bias and discrimination, makes it difficult to find a job. In fact, a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2002 found that resumes with “a very African American sounding name” received 50% fewer calls for interviews than resumes with “a very White sounding name.”
These statistics are sobering, if unsurprising. The country’s legacy of systemic bias isn’t something anyone can fix alone, but we all have a role to play in changing the system. Training and development leaders are in a unique position to bridge some of the most persistent gaps in the workplace.
In many ways, learning and development (L&D) professionals are on the front lines of the fight against systemic inequality in the workplace. They make decisions every day that help workers learn the skills that can promote career advancement and economic mobility. More specifically, in today’s rapidly changing environment, L&D departments are eyeing training in both data and analytics and financial literacy to help level the playing field.
Data and Analytics
Data and analytics is one of the most in-demand skill areas for the future of work. It’s a skill set with a significant overrepresentation of white workers, but it’s also one that is becoming increasingly critical for a growing number of employers — even in non-technical roles.
L&D leaders are proving that it’s not too late to create more equitable pipelines of data science talent. SoftBank, for instance, is teaming up with one of the country’s largest community colleges to help thousands of students in the Miami area prepare for data science careers through a program called Data Science for All. In addition to providing access to learning content, programs like this one bring together education providers and employers to provide connections to industry mentors and help learners gain a clear understanding of how their training connects to the workplace. Successful training programs must be as much about fostering inspiration from mentors and creating safe spaces with peers as they are about teaching specific hard skills.
Programs like Data Science for All help create new pipelines of diverse, data-capable talent for employers to hire. They also give L&D leaders an opportunity to send their own underrepresented employees as students, not only to learn valuable skills but to meet and be supported by a community of peers.
L&D leaders are also deepening their support of core life skills. At the top of the list is financial literacy that helps employees make the most of their hard-earned wages. Recent research indicates a “major racial gap” in personal finance knowledge, which, the study’s authors note, often correlates with financial wellness and stability. Questions such as how to create a realistic budget, how mortgages work, how to invest and how to plan for retirement have historically been left to employees to figure out on their own.
Fortunately, more and more L&D leaders are working with their benefits teams to help employees develop this life skill. They are supplementing benefits with financial coaching, education about retirement plans and targeted communications. By adding financial education resources to benefits packages, these companies are providing their employees with the tools and confidence to make prudent financial decisions and close the wealth gap.
It’s historically been all too common to blame workforce inequity on the so-called “pipeline problem” — the idea that hiring skilled Black and Latino workers is difficult because there aren’t enough of them learning critical skills. It’s a persistent myth, even though it has been debunked time and time again. And L&D leaders have a critical role to play in putting it to rest for good.
The point isn’t for training professionals to shoulder the burden of fixing endemic and wide-reaching disparities in the workplace. Rather, it’s to empower the L&D community to embrace their critical role as leaders in this fight — in ways that can inspire change across the broader education and workforce ecosystem. By investing in training for in-demand skills like data and analytics, as well as core life skills like financial literacy, L&D professionals can bridge access gaps and level the playing field for all workers navigating an increasingly dynamic economy.