By Maurice Jones
After two years of economic uncertainty, the U.S. job market has nearly bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 390,000 new jobs in May, representing an optimistic forecast for American jobseekers who either lost their jobs during the recent recession or want to transition into better career opportunities. Unfortunately, a great number of jobs added to the U.S. economy continue to be out of reach for millions, especially Black individuals without traditional four-year college degrees.
A recent study conducted by Opportunity@Work found that many of the 70 million people in America without four-year degrees, including 76 percent of Black talent in the workforce, have mastered essential competencies through work experience, two-year programs, military service, apprenticeships, and other powerful routes to skills-building. In many cases, these candidates would be able to fulfill the duties of available jobs and do them well. However, companies are leaving this incredible pool of talent untapped by automatically disqualifying them because they lack four-year degrees.
What has created this disconnect? The answer lies in the illusion that four-year degrees are the only viable pathway to competencies for career success. This myth is why many of us were told by our parents and teachers that a college education is necessary if we hope to make something of ourselves. Unfortunately, this narrative has given root to an inequitable hiring ecosystem that relies on a rather arbitrary measure of a person’s ability to do a job well.
Unlike other nations that have long understood there are multiple ways to cultivate skills, the United States is still learning to spot and nurture the genius and talent in our schools, communities, and companies. We are hampered by bias that views four-year degrees as the gold standard, sidelining talented professionals and placing a glass ceiling on upward mobility for millions.
At OneTen, we are working diligently to change this mindset. As more employers face a growing need for talent and more Americans consider new avenues for building skills, we’re witnessing an exciting shift in the way America thinks about work. We’re turning that mindset shift into a new approach to employment. We — along with the growing number of employers, talent developers, community partners, and Black talent that make up our coalition — are quickly opening up new pathways to economic success required to achieve a more perfect union. Dozens of companies are reclassifying jobs, providing skills-based education to retain and advance talent, and offering wraparound services to enable Black talent to thrive. I know this because last year, our coalition companies hired and promoted more than 25,000 Black individuals without four-year degrees into family-sustaining roles.
Of course, there is still much work to be done. Dispelling a myth that has been pervasive in our national psyche for generations will take time. Employers will need to challenge the way they approach hiring. They will need to learn how to discern and articulate what is required for each role within their company, and design job descriptions and application processes that attract the best and brightest talent, prioritizing skills and experience, not just credentials. In some cases, they will need to enlist the support of talent developers and human resources experts to reframe their approach at full-scale. This work will be difficult, but not one of these challenges is insurmountable.
In fact, it’s happening at the more than 60 companies around the country who’ve signed on to our mission. Every day, the employers in our network demonstrate that skills-based hiring and promoting don’t dilute the talent pool, but rather deepen and strengthen it. They are proving again and again that moving away from four-year degrees isn’t lowering the bar — it’s refining and perfecting it.
While employers play a significant role in leading this change, Black talent should also feel empowered. Those without a four-year degree who are seeking family-sustaining careers can begin by finding mentors who work in careers they are interested in, who can provide guidance on what is required to thrive in their industry, and who point Black talent toward life-changing development and career opportunities.
Black talent must also make sure we are not underselling ourselves. Too often, Black talent leave skills and experiences off their resumes because they did not learn them in college. But knowledge and skills gained from non-four-year-degreed avenues are equally valuable, and Black individuals should learn how to present the breadth of their expertise as an asset to hirers.
Most importantly, I encourage Black talent to be unafraid to raise their hands for responsibilities, raises, opportunities, and advancements even if they do not feel completely ready. The reality is that few people step into a position 100 percent ready, but with the essential skills and a willingness to learn, talent can quickly and effectively grow into new roles.
Now is the time for Black talent to be ambitious with their career goals and audacious in the pursuit of them. It is an opportunity for employers to reimagine and redefine the standard for great talent. We are in a moment of incredible opportunity and economic resurgence, and we must all take action to herald in a new age of realized potential.
Maurice Jones is CEO of OneTen, a coalition of private sector companies coming together to upskill, hire, and promote one million Black Americans over the next 10 years. Before joining OneTen, Jones was president of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit organization that supports projects to revitalize communities and catalyze economic opportunity for residents, and also is the former Secretary of Commerce for the state of Virginia
This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Transformation. In this series, we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on the intersection of work and learning.