Policymakers have long understood that structural unemployment is a source of community decline. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed, the American sociologist William Julius Wilson observed, is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless. Yet while the federal government has made substantial investments in communities through infrastructure, tax, and housing incentives, these efforts have not expanded economic opportunity for millions of American families locked out of the economic mainstream.
White House Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, has said that one of the main priorities of the Biden administration would be focusing on the racial equity crisis. While the administration is rightly focused on combatting the pandemic and helping communities of color who were disproportionately impacted, urgent action is also needed to help tackle perceptions and practices that perpetuate racial inequality of opportunity.
A national campaign focused on mobilizing employers to expand the availability of quality jobs, and help spur adoption of more equitable talent management practices, could be a start. For example, many companies continue to use four-year degree requirements as a proxy for hiring even when the responsibilities for that job often don’t require a degree. Instead, practices like setting specific skill requirements for jobs, while de-emphasizing the need for credentials, have been shown to be more effective at expanding economic opportunity for candidates of color who are often overlooked because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
Beyond ending this corrosive practice of “degree inflation,” a coordinated national effort can also provide employer resources that help companies diversify their workforce and improve employee retention and engagement. Some existing frameworks offer guiding principles for fine-tuning language, expanding talent sources, providing pay transparency and other practices that can help remove hiring biases and prevent screening out quality candidates that may be right for the job. And helping employers integrate corporate social responsibility initiatives into their core business strategy, such as updating corporate mission statements to focus on worker well-being, could lead to higher rates of employee engagement, retention, and productivity.
Such a campaign could also help transform the way community colleges and the private sector collaborate. By providing best practices to employers for leveraging the infrastructure of community college campuses—often one of the most accessible places for students to get upskilling opportunities—the Biden administration can help align postsecondary training to employer demand, and chip away at the pejorative perception that community colleges are meant only for low-income, working-class, and minority students, or for those who couldn’t “make it” into a four-year institution.
Finally, this campaign could make it more attractive for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to attend public colleges and universities in encouraging employers to make high-tech investments in community college campuses. Similar types of investments helped transform the image of vocational education in countries like Germany, Finland, and Singapore, and created more evenly distributed postsecondary enrollment.
In Finland, for example, 43 percent of high school students attend vocational school. Compare that to the United States, which ranks second in baccalaureate education but 16th among industrialized nations in sub-baccalaureate education. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, over the past two decades, the number of associate’s degrees has risen by roughly 9 percent in Canada, South Korea, and France, but by less than 3 percent in the United States.
By signaling to students that public and community colleges will command the same respect and deliver the same value as America’s first-class universities, President Biden, a proud University of Delaware graduate, and Dr. Jill Biden, who is continuing to serve as a community college professor, can help diversify student enrollment. And as researchers at The Century Foundation have written, if affluent students attended community colleges more frequently they would diversify the social capital of the student population, which improves career prospects for all students.
Since the pandemic, a number of coalitions attempting to do many of these activities have emerged. Among the more notable: JFF’s Recover Stronger Coalition mobilizes employers to invest in the advancement of workers of color; Guild Educations SkillUp Coalition provides laid off and furloughed workers access to a coalition of training providers; the Markle Foundation’s Rework America Alliance enables unemployed and low-wage workers to emerge from the pandemic stronger; and OneTen is a coalition of leading executives coming together to upskill, hire, and advance one million Black Americans over the next 10 years. These efforts should be applauded but would reach more struggling Americans if they were aligned to a coherent national employer mobilizing strategy.
By launching a campaign that mobilizes employers to remove hiring blind spots, collaborate more effectively with community colleges, and make long-term investments on campuses, President Biden has an opportunity to advance racial equity without congressional action. While legislation is certainly needed to address issues such as funding gaps and Pell Grant flexibility, a national campaign would ensure the work to dismantle systemic racism and promote an inclusive economy is not just the Biden administration’s responsibility. It’s the private sector’s as well.