I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can build a future of work that works for everyone. As automation and digitalization increase, how can we invest in our workforce and ensure that all Americans find opportunity in this economy? It’s a mission that I was committed to before COVID, and one that’s only increased in urgency as millions of Americans now find themselves without work. The rising unemployment rate for Black workers is at its highest in more than a decade, even as rates for white workers begin to fall.
Many corporations, policymakers and organizations have for years been focused on how we can prepare American workers for the future. But so far we’ve fallen short, particularly when it comes to workers who are experiencing low wages, many of whom are people of color. Recent reports estimate that as much as one-third of the United States workforce could be out of a job by 2030 thanks to automation — and that was pre-COVID.
The pandemic has elevated the stakes, and in a sense it presents an opportunity for those of us focused on workforce development to look inward and think about how we can do better for all American workers, today and in the future. Why have we struggled to reskill American workers and place them into meaningful work? What do we need to change to better support workers? And more specifically, what are some different decisions we could make to ensure that Black people have shared prosperity in the future of work?
There are many reasons why workforce development efforts have at times failed to be equitable and effective, and one of them has to do with whose ideas get funded. To ensure that programs and solutions can serve workers, we need more dollars behind Black proximate entrepreneurs whose lived experiences give them unique insight into how the social sector and society can evolve to foster greater opportunity for people from disinvested communities. Otherwise, we risk programs that don’t actually align to the needs and real-world experiences of Black workers.
Black entrepreneurs have founded many of today’s most effective workforce programs. Take Theresa Leonard who, along with her daughter Laurin, founded R3 Score Technologies, a software-as-a-service business solution to help open opportunities for Americans living with a criminal history. Theresa was inspired to start the company after she herself completed a 70-month prison sentence and struggled to access employment, financial services and housing.
Codepath.org is a high-impact organization that is transforming computer science education to serve minorities and underserved populations — and helping connect students to technology companies. Founder Michael Ellison, who grew up in poverty, is focused on how we can address barriers to equity and build a system where all people have access to high-quality technology jobs.
Ruben Harris, the founder of Career Karma, talks a lot about what it means to come from an underestimated background and succeed in the tech world. It’s something he experienced himself, which inspired him to help others demystify the process of working in tech or at a startup. Career Karma is an extension of that mission, a highly effective organization that empowers people to navigate the world of coding bootcamps and identify the right match. Harris has said the majority of Career Karma users are Black and brown.
Black entrepreneurs have a unique understanding of the issues that affect Black people, from what it’s like to be a working mom to what it means to live without broadband and rely primarily on mobile technology. Black people know what it feels like to experience a professional network gap, fight for competitive salaries and be overlooked by people in power.
This is precisely why my team at New Profit — a venture philanthropy firm — has been deliberate in our search for diverse, proximate applicants for our recently launched Future of Work Grand Challenge, a prize competition with XPRIZE, MIT Solve and JFF that will prepare millions of workers to succeed in the American economy. (Learn more here.)
The importance of dissemination and representation
Funding Black entrepreneurs has other benefits. These leaders not only have knowledge about new careers and the future of work, but they also know how to teach and reach people who may be less familiar with these concepts. They can help disseminate information and ensure that effective programs actually reach the people they’re designed to serve, on the right platforms, and with the right messaging.
Representation is critical, too. We need more models of innovators, more examples of people from low-income communities who have found a pathway to well-paying, meaningful work. I can tell you first-hand: when you see someone who looks like you do and who’s doing what you want to do, your dreams suddenly become possible.
The future is ours to shape
When we talk about the future of work, we’re talking about a future ideal state. In the Black community, we have to be futurists, because if we look at statistics about potential outcomes and believe them, well — it’s hard to get motivated to do anything at all. Who better than us to imagine what an equitable and prosperous world of work will look and feel like?
Dr. Angela Jackson is a Partner at New Profit, a venture philanthropy organization. She recently launched the Future of Work Grand Challenge, an initiative to rapidly reskill 25,000 displaced workers into living-wage jobs in the next 24 months. Dr. Jackson is the former founding executive director of the Global Language Project.