Striving for Equity in the 21st-Century Workplace

Posted: April 22nd, 2014

Is it possible to build an economy that rewards workers primarily based on their knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors rather than on the circumstances of their birth, gender, or ethnicity? How about a workplace where experience and certifications are valued as much as academic degrees?

This vision of equity in the workplace is just one of the promising outcomes of an economy built on rewarding those who are working while also learning new skills and abilities. These are today’s working learners, and their ongoing success in the 21st-century workplace is a critical focus of our work at ACT Foundation. To ensure our work is most effective at reaching the working learner community, we have created the Working Learner Advisory Council (WLAC) consisting of a dozen working learners from across the country who advise ACT Foundation in our efforts. Through these advisors and in the process of developing the key levers for advancing our vision, we are learning as much about the equity problems of our current economy as we are the solutions.

For example, our initial request for nominations to the WLAC generated about 100 responses, but not one was for an African-American male. We feel this is indicative of a larger cultural and workforce disparity in hiring practices and opportunities for young African-American men that our vision of a National Learning Economy can help address. Moving forward, ACT Foundation will make concerted and targeted efforts to reach this and other minority populations of working learners to ensure all voices have a place at the table. We also recognize that young African-American men face a unique and particular challenge in the current marketplace. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of February this year, the unemployment rate for African-American men age 20 and over is more than twice that of white men age 20 and over (12.9% vs. 5.1%). Our goal at ACT Foundation is to develop and support a National Learning Economy that is equitable and accessible by workers of all races and ethnicities.

We also know that African-American men are not the only group facing workforce challenges. “We should pay particular attention to both the Hispanic and African-American male subgroups,” says Dr. Andrew Jones, Chancellor of Coast Community College District in Southern California and a member of ACT Foundation’s executive advisory board. Dr. Jones has spent 30 years in higher education administration and is a long-time advocate for equal access and student success in community colleges where many students earn professional credentials and certificates for the workplace.  “Hispanics are the fastest-growing group in the U.S., and African-American men are arguably in the most dire situation,” says Jones.  “There is a notable lack of participation and performance in community colleges by both, and this translates to the marketplace.”  America cannot afford to ignore its under-served populations, and ACT Foundation is striving to ensure these and other minority populations have a direct role in developing solutions and influencing policy to ensure equal opportunity for all in a National Learning Economy.