Reporting on the connections between education and work

Rhetoric vs. reality on racial economic equity

Black workers remain underrepresented in tech jobs. We talked with Michael Collins of JFF about what a hiring downturn means for efforts to open doors for more Americans.
Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Many companies and philanthropies vowed to take on racial inequity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Among the resulting post-June 2020 investments, an estimated $1.23B is aimed at structural factors that contribute to occupational segregation and the racial wealth gap, according to a recent landscape scan from JFF Labs.

Yet the recent wave of Big Tech layoffs have raised concerns about whether corporations and funders will back away from their commitments amid fears of an economic slowdown.

Among those worries, what will the layoffs and hiring freezes mean for the nascent efforts by some companies to look beyond degrees in hiring? And how secure are the jobs held by Black and Latino workers who were hired through alternative paths such as apprenticeships or tech on-ramps?

To explore these questions, we checked in with Michael Collins, a vice president at JFF and former commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Collins contributed to the recent report from JFF Labs and is leading a JFF racial economic equity initiative.

In addition to weighing in on the potential ripple effects of a tech hiring slowdown, Collins talked about how to best ensure that experiments with short-term credential programs actually pay off for Black and Latino learners.

What impact could the layoffs in tech have on the corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments you’ve been following?
Michael Collins

A: Unfortunately, these layoffs are a continuation of what Black workers have historically faced in our economy. They are twice as likely to be unemployed. Their employment opportunities improve in a tight labor market. But since they are often the last to be hired, in an economic downturn, they are the first to be fired. The current layoffs are no different. 

The tech layoffs must be assessed in the context of Big Tech’s actual performance in hiring Black workers because of the commitments they made after George Floyd was murdered. Some of the media coverage about large losses to DEI efforts presumes that there were significant strides made in hiring Black workers, which does not quite align with other media coverage that calls out Big Tech for falling short of their commitment to hiring Black workers. Black tech workers continue to be underrepresented in the industry at all levels. 

Is this a bellwether for similar hiring commitments in other industries?

A: Cases where DEI efforts and Black tech talent took direct hits are unfortunate examples of the emptiness of some of the commitments to DEI. Those statements were more about branding and photo opportunities than they were about structural changes in employer recruitment, hiring, advancement, workplace climate, and other equitable talent practices that should contribute to meaningful increases in the number and share of Black tech workers at all levels of the industry. 

We should not be surprised that DEI efforts that were “tacked on,” and not integrated into how organizations conduct business, are the first to be jettisoned in an economic downturn. Authentic commitments to DEI are not about a moment in time. They are about a long-term commitment that is reflected in the core operations of the organization, not an add on. Authentic commitments to DEI are grounded in the evidence that diverse teams are more profitable. It’s not only about DEI. It is also about winning in business.

If organizations have not integrated DEI into their core operations, I think we will see other industries making cuts and it is likely that those cuts will hamper DEI efforts and hurt Black and Brown workers because of the historical dynamic of “last hired, first fired.”

What impact will the layoffs have on non-degree routes into “good” tech jobs, such as through apprenticeships or bootcamps?

A: The current layoffs should not be confused with tech not being a strong pathway for economic advancement for Black learners and workers. Most of the layoffs are happening in Big Tech. Technology is important across all industry sectors and there are employment opportunities in tech-adjacent industries. The long-term outlook for careers in tech remains strong. It is safe to say that tech skills and competencies are still important for access to good jobs now and in the future. 

Tech educators can do more to help Black learners and workers understand and make sense of the many tech pathways and what they mean for employment. Our research found that Black people are interested in the tech industry but are unclear on where to go for information and support to enter the sector. Tech educators need to widen the places from which they recruit and ensure that there is an equitable opportunity for people to get information and support about education and training opportunities. 

Tech education providers need to do more to ensure that learners are not being trained so narrowly that they are not able to efficiently pivot to jobs within and across the tech industry and tech-adjacent industries. Moreover, it is important that tech education providers explicitly help learners develop professional social capital, which is the ability to build and cultivate relationships that are helpful in securing the kinds of experiences—for example, internships, work-based learning opportunities, or apprenticeships—that create access to employment opportunities.  

As is clear in the recent article by The New York Times on CUNY computer science graduates of color, having a tech credential is not enough for employment and success in the tech job market. Professional social capital that allows access to relationships and experiences in the industry are critical. Additionally, tech educators must ensure that employers are recruiting Black learners and learners of color from their institutions.

While we know little about how well these alternative pathways are working, the people they aim to serve are disproportionately Black and Latino. Is more caution warranted?

A: There are over 1 million different credentials, mostly online and alternative providers. There is work underway by organizations like Credential Engine to create transparency on the skills and competencies associated with these credentials and ultimately what they mean for employment and earnings. Unfortunately, Black learners and workers and other people of color, who do not have as strong a foothold in the economy, must make sense of this immense and chaotic education and training landscape now. Even though we do not have all the data on what the many pathways and credentials allow workers to do, the learn-to-work ecosystem must do more to help Black and Brown workers and learners to make smart decisions about their education and training options. There is a lot of support in the learn-to-work ecosystem and in policy circles for short-term skilling and credentialing options as on-ramps into good jobs and careers for Black and Brown people. 

While I agree that there is a great need for alternatives to 4-year degrees, I worry that some of the advocacy for short-term skilling and credentialing strategies is not grounded in employment and earnings data, which puts workers of color at risk of investing in pathways and credentials that may not pay off. More transparency is needed around which pathways and credentials create a reliable on-ramp into a job versus ones that might help with advancement.

Finally, I would like to see more attention paid to the individuals who are completing short-term and alternative credentials. For example, who is the learner? What are their goals? Are they employed? How is their financial health? How are they financing their learning? What is their level of preparation? It is difficult to know which short-term and alternative credentials are good bets without more granular information on “who” is completing the credential.

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