Why Underrepresented People are Best Equipped to Rebuild Our Economy
We stand today on the cusp of the most transformative labor market evolution in a century.
Until recently, this shift has been primarily defined by what’s been called the “4th Industrial Revolution.” This is the confluence of robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and related advances that have already massively disrupted many industries and will continue to do so at a rapid pace. In 2020, the dual seismic events of the coronavirus pandemic and the historic protests around racial inequity that have forced a societal reckoning added two more inescapable dimensions to an already accelerating dynamic.
In recent months, WholeStory has been exploring the interplay between these forces in the Big Picture Series. Over the course of these panel discussions with subject matter experts spanning workforce development, philanthropy, policy, and equity, a central truth has emerged: Underrepresented people are best suited to rebuild our economy.
The massive disruption accelerated by these three forces has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity for adaptation and innovation. As a country, we are positioned to rebuild a more resilient and equitable economy, informed by the lessons of the past, with an eye toward the unique challenges of an uncertain future. To do it, we need millions of workers who are compassionate, self-aware, adaptable, courageous, perseverant, and creative. Top-down strategies coming from think tanks, policy centers, and Fortune 500 boardrooms certainly have a role to play. However, resilient organizations are made of individual resilient employees and leaders. So, where to find them?
Modern Psychology Points the Way
Over the past three decades, thousands of studies have been done showing the relationship between pivotal life experiences and the development of key soft skills and character strengths. It turns out that what doesn’t kill us really can make us stronger, and more perseverant, steady, adaptable, courageous, humble, and self-aware. This is what we mean when we say resilient. These qualities are also associated with the essential capacity for lifelong learning, a core competency for successful employees. This area of research has gone mainstream in recent years, centered around concepts like grit, growth mindset, post-traumatic growth, vulnerability, narrative identity, authentic leadership, and others.
Collectively, this research makes clear two essential points for this moment in our history:
- The human qualities needed to rebuild a more equitable and resilient economy most commonly emerge from overcoming adversity, and
- these experiences and the human qualities they produce are most abundantly and easily found in populations that are underrepresented in our workforce.
Underrepresented populations—Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, veterans, women, neurodiverse people, immigrants, refugees, people with conviction histories—are by definition diverse and can’t be reduced to a single common set of characteristics. However, members of these groups frequently share a common denominator of adaptation and growth through struggle that has imparted them with precisely those qualities most necessary for the sort of transformational economic rebuilding project we are collectively undertaking.
Take my friend Shauna*, for example. Shauna is an African-American mother in her early 30s, a former NBA dancer, beloved Program Coordinator for her local chapter of a nation-wide youth program, active volunteer outside of work, and passionate advocate for education reform. Shauna is resourceful, motivated, and organized. Her collaborative nature and public speaking abilities are nothing short of inspirational. However, because she withdrew from college early to have her baby, she can’t advance internally at her job, and isn’t even considered for many jobs she’s qualified for due to her incomplete degree.
And consider my friend Ibrahim*. Ibrahim is an immigrant from Iraq who recently became a U.S. citizen after living here for 10 years. In Iraq he founded, owned, and operated a successful chain of electronics stores. He was forced to flee, however, after losing his leg and his infant son in a bomb blast targeted at him because of his support of the American presence there. Ibrahim has courageously persevered through unimaginable hardship, has an incredible work ethic, and has a demonstrated growth mindset. He’s currently working as a very-highly rated Uber driver, having been persistently denied jobs due, frequently, to various flavors of implicit bias.
A Massive Untapped Talent Pool Exists with the Skills We Need (if only we had eyes to see it)
Collectively, underrepresented populations possess the most critical qualities for facing uncertainty, remaining steady under changing conditions, and working collaboratively. They represent an enormous and underutilized pool of talent that must be proactively reached if we are to be successful in this societal rebuilding effort. Consider:
- There are 22 million people who are “underemployed,” working at jobs significantly beneath their skill level, including many immigrants whose credentials didn’t carry over from their country.
- More than 70 million people, disproportionately BIPOC, who do not have a college degree but are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs).
- Nearly 5 million disconnected Opportunity Youth—young adults aged 16-24, disproportionately BIPOC—who are currently neither in school nor employed.
- There are still 12 million dislocated workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and who are also disproportionately BIPOC.
- Women, especially Black and Latina women, are leaving the workforce in far greater numbers than men due to the pandemic. As of December 2020, there are 2.2 million fewer women in the workforce than at the start of the year.
Rebuilding the economy in the face of these three major forces is an all-hands-on-deck situation. It calls for a commitment from all segments of our economy to a new, shared vision of resilience and equity. Underrepresented populations have clearly been deeply impacted by the three forces shaping the moment we are in. Placing priority on supporting their reentry or upskilling into the workforce certainly makes sense through the lens of equity. However, that alone doesn’t go far enough in recognizing the imperative we have, from an economic recovery perspective, to shift our way of seeing.
For far too long, our system has failed to recognize and assign appropriate value to the critical skills many in these populations already possess. The irony is that 92% of hiring professionals agree today that soft skills are as important or more important than technical skills. Let’s bridge that gap! NOW is the time to begin seeking out, identifying, and elevating people with these qualities into the roles where their full experience and skill set can be seen, honored, and deployed to rebuild our economy.
As individual organizations look to respond to this historic inflection point by building resilience and equity into their DNA, one of the easiest points of entry is the hiring process. Consciously choosing to value soft skills and character strengths by systematically prioritizing and identifying them in the candidate sourcing, screening, and interviewing processes is crucial, and represents a big step toward strengthening their workforce with an eye towards resilience and equity. According to top management consulting firm McKinsey, one of the keys to ensuring this happens is to empower job seekers to talk about their life experiences during the interview, in a structured and professionally-relevant way. Taking this approach also has tangible impacts on authentically diversifying the workplace and elevating equity into every hiring discussion and decision.
It seems rare to encounter strategies that create and align positive outcomes for individuals, business, and society as a whole, but we have one here. Hiring in this way benefits the job seeker because their holistic value and skill set is seen. It benefits employers because those same soft skills and character strengths that instill resilience also boost the bottom line and generate healthier company cultures. Finally, it benefits society because resilient people make resilient organizations, which collectively build resilient societies and economies.
What are we waiting for?
* For privacy purposes, I’ve changed the names of my friends but their stories are 100% real.
- Carson, Kathleen, PhD. COVID-19 and the Future of Work. Seattle Jobs Initiative, Jul. 2020 | Source
- The Underemployment Big Picture. PayScale, Nov. 2020 | Source
- STARs. Opportunity@Work, Nov. 2020 | Source
- Who Are Opportunity Youth?. The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, Nov. 2020 | Source
- Koeze, Ella. 6 Months After Coronavirus Shutdowns, the Shape(s) of the Economic Crisis. New York Times, Oct. 2020 | Source
- Pedersen, Claire. Amid COVID-19, moms leaving the workforce could have lasting impact on economy. ABC News, Dec. 2020 | Source
- Soft skills fora hard world. McKinsey, Nov. 2020 | Source
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