For years, companies have said they want more diversity in professional and leadership roles in their organizations. To do so, they’ve focused almost exclusively on bringing in new talent, while overlooking opportunities to provide career mobility to underrepresented communities in their frontline workforce. Not surprisingly, that approach hasn’t moved the needle much on diversity and equity, but it has nevertheless remained dominant.
That is, until now. We’re seeing something different of late: For many companies, upskilling, reskilling, and advancement are taking on new purpose and urgency.
Over the past 13 months, frontline workers risked their health and their lives to keep the country functioning amid the pandemic. It’s become clear to everyone just how vital these low-paid, frontline workers are, yet their long-term job security is under threat. Automation and other Future of Work trends have accelerated during the pandemic and this same group of workers — many of whom are people of color — risk being left behind. Last summer, the inherent unfairness of that reality collided with simmering discontent over systemic racism and the inequitable treatment of Black, Latino, and other people of color in the United States.
Because of this, large companies felt a new pressure and opportunity to step up around social and economic justice. While many of their efforts are focused externally through community investment, businesses have also realized that they themselves have to be part of the solution too. This means creating more pathways for Black and Brown workers, many of whom are disproportionately in frontline roles, so that they can advance within their companies.
Marissa Andrada, Chief Diversity, Inclusion & People Officer at Chipotle, has worked on these issues for years and also believes this moment is different.
“There is heightened awareness, and more companies are joining the conversation,” she said. This “allows for a greater impact in the fight against systemic racism and injustices of all kinds.”
Lorraine Stomski, Senior Vice President, Associate Learning & Leadership at Walmart, echoes this sentiment, and noted that longstanding efforts to advance diversity and equity throughout Walmart now have new import.
“The loud cry for racial justice over the past year led to a stark realization that we can be doing more…” she said. “By leaning into Walmart’s scale, supply chain, and the ingenuity of our people, we knew we could drive more meaningful, long-lasting change through the power of our business.”
Walmart is one of dozens of major corporations, from Accenture to Whirlpool, that have signed onto OneTen, a coalition committing to upskilling, hiring, and advancing one million Black Americans over the next 10 years. The initiative focuses on helping workers without four-year degrees move into family-sustaining jobs in the near-term, and provide opportunities for advancement in the longer-term.
The highest echelons of corporate leadership also recognize the need to improve. Nine in 10 CEOs say that diversity, equity, and inclusion is a strategic priority this year, and that their companies aim to be leaders in that area. They identify upskilling and advancement for underrepresented employees as an area that needs more attention as well. That squares with the conversations we’ve been having with major employers in recent months. The talk seems different now — this work has always been important, but now it’s urgent.
Walmart, for example, recently expanded its education program to include degrees in health and technology. These industries are aligned with Walmart’s business ambitions, and it will create a new internal talent marketplace. It’s one that moves away from typical education minimums and laddered progression, and instead matches associates with new opportunities based on their skills and interests.
Chipotle also expanded and diversified its debt-free degree program by adding programs offered by Paul Quinn College, a leading HBCU. And Rock Central recently retooled its learning programs to create a new academy that enables team members to attend college 100% tuition free.
“We understand that in order to have a thriving organization our team members must be in a position to thrive as well,” said KimArie Yowell, Chief Learning Officer at Rock Central.
In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Matt Sigelman and Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. made an impassioned case for building on this momentum. Sigelman is the CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a major labor market analytics firm, and Taylor serves as the President & CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. Together, they have an unrivaled view of how DE&I efforts, hiring, and advancement play out across a wide range of companies, and they both sense an opportunity for much-needed change.
As they see it, in order for companies to make meaningful progress, employers must “focus less on hiring and more on creating the internal escalators necessary to raise diverse talent up from within.”
The majority of formal education and training dollars are spent on workers with bachelor’s degrees. In a 2015 study, for example, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that employers spend 58% of their formal education and training dollars on workers who have bachelor’s degrees, compared to only 25% on employees with some college, and 17% on those with no education beyond high school. This despite the fact that employees without degrees represent the majority of workers. Even a small shift could bring meaningful change Black, Brown, and other workers on the frontlines.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple solution to increasing career mobility. Companies will need to do the hard work of mapping career paths, scaling well-designed upskilling initiatives, setting up individual career navigation support, and changing the recruiting preference from hiring externally to internally.
But the good news is that companies appear ready for some of the hardest work — that is, to really change the corporate culture.
“When organizations see DE&I as a strategic advantage, and tie it to business objectives and rewards, the momentum will continue,” said Chipotle’s Andrada.
If companies can seize the current energy to reshape policies, practices, and mindsets, we could be in a very different place 10 years from now. It would be a better place, where companies don’t just talk about growing diverse talent, but routinely do it — where career mobility for the frontline isn’t an initiative, but a part of everyday business.