The Technology We Need to Respond to the Inequitable Impact of COVID-19 on Communities of Color
There is an opportunity for technology to make a tangible social impact amidst the daunting challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Lucretia Murphy, senior director, JFF
An equitable economic recovery from the twin health care and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will not be possible without addressing the racial inequities in the labor market. These structural inequities disadvantage Black, Latinx, and Native American workers and those without a college education, and the systems that would help these workers navigate career opportunities amidst the chaos of COVID-19 (or even pre-COVID) are broken. While we fix the workforce development system, we need to also empower workers, especially those who are disadvantaged by the system because of race, class, or level of educational attainment, to set their own trajectory for employment. Career navigation technology can play a key role in disrupting inequities in the labor market and empowering Black, Latinx, and Native American workers to more effectively navigate the changing post-COVID landscape to find good jobs and build careers.
Looking back, in the days before the COVID pandemic, we were celebrating record low unemployment rates for Black (5.4 percent) and Latinx (4.1 percent) communities. But those seemingly favorable statistics obscured significant inequities. Black and Latinx unemployment was low, but even before the pandemic Black and Latinx workers were overrepresented in low-wage work in comparison with white workers. Native American workers didn’t enjoy record low unemployment before the pandemic, and now they are bearing the brunt of the pandemic-driven recession. In particular, nearly one-third of Native American women are in low-wage occupations that are most vulnerable to job cuts. Too many people of color are extremely vulnerable to volatile labor markets: They are subject to “last hired, first fired” policies in low-wage occupations and have little opportunity for advancement. They are hit hardest by the recession and the last to benefit from the recovery.
Now, as some sectors of the economy slowly reopen, we are seeing racial inequities in the recovery, too. COVID-19 has accelerated the pace at which jobs are being automated, and this automation-driven job loss is more common in occupations held by African American and Latinx workers. Where there is hiring, white workers are getting hired back at twice the rate of Black workers; or there is hiring for “essential workers” in positions — disproportionately held by Black, Latinx, and Native American workers — in jobs that put these workers most at risk for COVID contagion.
Today we believe the current moment — and the current labor market — are ready for a new technology-driven approach to career navigation that will empower millions of workers to find new and economically transformative work, at scale. We encourage practitioners, technologists, entrepreneurs, and investors to continue innovations in career navigation technology that keep communities of color at the center.
Innovators are pushing the envelope of career navigation technology that empower workers who are typically at the fringes of the labor market. Their work reveals principles that can guide the development of career navigation tools that disrupt racial inequities and help workers advance in their careers. Specifically, these career navigation tools do the following:
Mitigate the racial bias that constrains opportunities for economic mobility.
Racial discrimination has cost the United States $16 trillion in the past decade, and discrimination is still a barrier to employment for people of color. Blendoor mitigates bias in the hiring process by identifying qualified job candidates and then sharing information about those candidates with recruiters anonymously — without names, ages, or photos. As the company unequivocally states, if a company struggles to find a diversity of talent, it’s not a pipeline problem, “it’s a buy-in, bias, branding, and business case problem.” The company’s goal is to help employers build diverse and inclusive workplaces, beginning with tools to build diversity into their talent pipelines.
Notably, Blendoor also supports career navigation for jobseekers as well. The company’s platform tracks the progress of candidates from populations that are underrepresented in corporations, helping to determine whether unconscious bias on the basis of race, gender, LGBTQIA identity, military service, or physical ability impacts hiring decisions and workplace culture. This data-driven approach gives prospective employees information that helps them determine whether they would truly feel welcome at certain companies.
Promote and leverage the social capital held by communities of color.
For decades, there has been a push for racial diversity in the workplace. Recently, this has been amplified with corporate commitments to racial equity and public statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. These may be clues for jobseekers of color who are looking for employers with diverse working environments, but public statements can be misleading. Black workers, or their colleagues of color, inside those organizations are the best positioned to determine if these statements truly reflect the organization’s culture and practices or are nothing more than a superficial attempt to get good publicity.
MentorSpaces understands that navigating racial culture is part of career navigation for jobseekers of color. With that in mind, the company developed a platform that connects younger, less experienced workers — or “Proteges” — with mentors, who are generally older, more experienced employees of color. Depending on their desired career paths, prospective employers, or topics of interest (such as negotiating or decision-making), Proteges sign up to join specific chat rooms — or “spaces” — where mentors will answer questions, offer advice, and share expertise.
By enabling asynchronous exchange of information, the MentorSpace platform makes mentorship scalable in a way that would be difficult with one-to-one interaction alone, allowing early career workers to expand their knowledge and build social capital with mentors of color who have knowledge of corporate culture, especially the culture around racial diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Design delivery mechanisms and business models that make career navigation technology accessible to and empowers the advancement of frontline workers.
COVID-19 and the most recent cycle of racial reckoning has put a spotlight on the challenges facing frontline workers. The conditions are challenging, and the racial inequities stark. Many of these people have remained employed during the pandemic and resulting recession in customer-facing positions in retail, health care, and gig economy positions, and they have been heralded as “essential workers.” However, many observers have characterized the people in those frontline roles as “exploited workers” because they are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 but have had little power to demand personal protective equipment, hazard pay, or paid time off for illness or required quarantines.
Moreover, because of structural racism and occupational segregation, workers of color hold a higher share of vulnerable and lower-paying jobs in the hospitality, restaurant, and tourism industries that were decimated by pandemic shutdowns.
Either way, these workers are vulnerable in today’s chaotic labor market without a transparent system of connections. They end up moving from job to job but not finding the springboard to a good job and higher income. Steady seeks to address that problem and create a network of workers through a free membership-based “income intelligence platform” that maps income data from workers’ bank accounts against their employment histories, skills and experience, and geography to connect them with good-fit jobs and careers that pay higher wages.
To respond to workers’ needs during the pandemic, Steady offered emergency cash relief and free telemedicine subscriptions, and even piloted regional universal basic income programs.
Economic mobility is not race-neutral, so the tools that help people navigate mobility should not be race-neutral either. These innovative career navigation technologies connect workers who are typically disadvantaged in the labor market with the resources they need to advance their careers while also advancing employers’ diversity commitments.