A recent government report showed that job openings and hires are falling, which is not surprising given the delta variants rise. What is significant is that 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in just one month. But perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising either since many of these jobs often pay low wages and offer few workplace benefits or support. For plenty of workers, these conditions are not worth it, especially if it means putting themselves at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. The fact is that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) workers disproportionately pay the high cost of low-wage labor.
Across economic booms and busts, BIPOC workers are persistently overrepresented in low-wage, less stable, and often physically tasking jobs, while underrepresented in jobs that offer higher wages, opportunities for upward mobility, and fewer physical risks. The inverse is true for white workers. At every education level, white workers make higher hourly wages and have lower unemployment rates compared to the BIPOC workforce. The effects of COVID-19 exacerbated these gaps.
Last year’s uprisings against racism, anti-Blackness, and police brutality reignited calls for racial equity from scores of companies, boosting public understanding of the systemic obstacles facing BIPOC workers in the job market. And while corporate pledges may result in efforts to dismantle racial inequality within those companies, progress at a societal level requires meaningful policy change.
That means occupational segregation and labor market discrimination can’t be understood without internalizing the effects of systemic racism on BIPOC workers. Racial gaps in education and wealth are reflected in the laws, rules, and practices that maintain whiteness in our economic system. Despite growing recognition that racial bias has a structural basis, policy change must recognize how white supremacy in workforce development normalizes how job training is shaped to address the needs and perspectives of English-speaking white workers, and how BIPOC workers and workers for whom English isn’t their primary language are expected to conform to those needs instead of receiving training that integrates their experiences as well.
The employment outcomes of the public workforce system illustrates how current laws privilege whiteness. In 2019, low-income adults earned around $29,000 before participating in public workforce programs. While some results were positive (around 70% who completed a program were employed, continued to hold a job, or earned a credential) we saw differential returns when race is considered. Where salaries barely moved for white workers, the average salary for Black workers dropped to $24,000.
In other words, when a job seeker completes a training program and earns a credential, they are likely no better off in the labor market, and in fact BIPOC workers may end up worse off. Imposing a skills-based framework without also addressing racial disparities in education and employment in workforce policy has effectively kept people of color, including immigrant workers, churning in low-wage work. These sobering results show why the public workforce system must promote job quality.
Federal workforce policy is premised on a prevailing narrative that individuals don’t have jobs because they don’t have the skills that employers need. If they want to change jobs, then they need to get trained. Current workforce law is structured so that employers have most of the decision-making power over job training programs and it incentivizes the public workforce system to match job seekers to any high-demand job without equal consideration to the work conditions.
Policymakers can confront institutionalized white supremacy in workforce development with these three steps.
First, BIPOC communities should define solutions for themselves. For lawmakers, that means prioritizing funding for the direct participation of BIPOC communities in the policy process from program design to implementation. Codifying BIPOC engagement affords that community the same respect that for too long has been given to whiteness. Importantly, requiring local community engagement, especially immigrant and refugee leaders and BIPOC-led organizations, ensures that community-specific needs are addressed and their strengths reflected in program design.
Second, racial equity should be the first and most important measurement. Just as the Department of Labor (DOL) promotes “[c]entering relief and recovery policies around the needs of Black women and other vulnerable workers,” it should standardize the employment outcomes of the BIPOC workforce as guiding performance metrics of the public workforce system.
DOL could also take a “multiple measures” approach and lead a new engagement initiative that enables the public workforce system to develop a shared definition of what job quality looks like in BIPOC communities. Linking workforce equity metrics to good job outcomes for BIPOC workers would create positive feedback loops that engage communities of color.
Third, do not simply do more of the same skills training. Spending more money alone will not promote equity. Instead, federal funding for job training should be conditioned on proven interventions such as targeted or local hire and community workforce agreements that place BIPOC workers into good jobs and work with employers to turn bad job conditions into good ones.
Labor-management partnerships (LMPs) are another specific example of a proven workforce model. LMPs offer skills training and raise employment standards across industries, especially in caregiving where pay is low and most of the workforce comprises women of color. Consider the SEIU 775 Benefits Group in Washington state, an LMP that provides over 45,000 long-term care workers with registered apprenticeship and creates better job conditions with access to higher wages, health and retirement benefits, safer working conditions, predictable work schedules, and the freedom for workers to voice concerns in the workplace.
Without equitable policy intervention, the labor market will perpetuate existing gaps between BIPOC and white workers that will only further weaken the economy. Many solutions to quality job creation go beyond workforce policy. Improving job quality is one piece of advancing equity, and a full accounting of whiteness in workforce development is required. But doing away with white supremacy in workforce development requires our institutions and leadership to acknowledge that it exists in the first place.