Richard Hartnett Richard Hartnett
Former Manager, Communications and Strategy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


November 23, 2021


Key takeaways

  • While employment levels among Black Americans have recovered from the depths of the pandemic, they still trail those of other ethnic groups.
  • Businesses are adapting their hiring practices to focus more on skills than experience or degrees to help bring Black men and women back into the workforce.
  • Other organizations are also helping by making post-secondary credential and associate degree courses more accessible to minority populations.

Sixty companies. Ten years. One goal: to hire, upskill, and promote one million Black Americans.

That’s the mission of OneTen, a coalition of Chief Executives and their companies who have committed to hiring and upskilling one million Black Americans without four-year college degrees over the next decade. To be sure, the absence of a four-year college degree isn’t a bug of the program—it’s a feature. Or, as OneTen CEO Maurice Jones said during a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Talent Forward event, “The notion of focusing on skills is a big piece of what we have to do to make sure that Black talent really has sustainable access to jobs and careers no matter what else is going on in the economy.”

It’s a mindset shift born out of the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black workers. When the pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, the virus’s impact on employment exacerbated long-standing trends in racial disparities in the labor market. Black men and women were hardest hit by mass layoffs. Coupled with the racial wealth gap, Black male and female workers and their families were particularly vulnerable to the worst economic effects of the pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic, for instance, unemployment among Black Americans soared to 16%. For comparison, just a year earlier in 2019, Black unemployment had fallen to a historic low of just 5%.

While employment levels among Black Americans have recovered from the depths of the pandemic, they still trail those of other ethnic groups. According to September employment data released by the U.S. Labor Department, despite a reduction in total unemployment from 5.2% to 4.8%, Black unemployment remained at 7.9% while Hispanic unemployment fared only slightly better at 6.3%. White unemployment for the same period dropped to 4.2%.

Historically, Black unemployment has never moved in parity with that of white Americans. But, in a post-pandemic environment with a tight labor market, persistent disparities in employment rates call for innovative solutions to the problem. Business leaders speaking at the Talent Forward event believe focusing on skills rather than degrees can be part of the solution.

Kwasi Mitchell, Chief Purpose Officer of Deloitte U.S., says more and more he is finding that a four-year degree isn’t required for many positions. With regards to Deloitte’s hiring practices, Mitchell says, “Fundamentally, it is just taking a step back and looking at the way we’ve hired traditionally and if our preponderance and use of degrees to really weed out talent through the selection process is necessary for the careers of the future.” Rather than focus on candidates with four-year degrees, Mitchell says aligning high-growth areas within the firm that are skills-based or tech-focused can help expand its training program for existing employees and bring more new talent into the organization.

Education is still important, of course, which is why the Lumina Foundation helps make post-secondary credential and associate degree courses more accessible to minority populations. Lumina has invested with the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) academies to match up community college programs with the needs of local employers. “Credentialing people so that they can continue to build those skills over time and continue to get new opportunities so that they build on where they start is increasingly important,” says Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina

As damaging as the impact of the pandemic has been on Black employment overall, it has been particularly devastating on Black women. Black women lost the most jobs during the pandemic and have thus far recovered the fewest jobs. There are an estimated 550,000 fewer Black women working today than before the pandemic. Among unemployed women ages 16 and over, 41% of Black women have been without work for over six months.

Part of the problem is that Black women face a trio of obstacles to returning to the workforce, or what Lumina’s Merisotis says is the three-legged stool of academic, social, and financial barriers. Doing a better job of increasing support for Black women across all three areas can help increase opportunities, but it won’t completely solve the problem.

“We’ve got to be more holistic in the private sector and policy space if we are truly going to create the kind of environment in which Black women can thrive,” says OneTen’s Jones. “That’s why I think the pandemic in 2020 has hopefully helped us to relearn and revisit that we still have work to do in these spaces.”

About the authors

Richard Hartnett

Richard Hartnett

Richard is a former manager on the communications and strategy team.