Advancing Workforce Equity in Boston: A Blueprint for Action

Authors of a new report and experts in workforce development discuss leveraging data in Greater Boston with an eye towards an equitable economic recovery

February 23, 2021

Boston is the 11th largest U.S. city and has the eighth largest metro GDP. Were it not for racial gaps in our workforce and economy, that GDP would be $44.5 billion bigger. But that staggering figure is just one cost of racism in Greater Boston.

The GDP gap was one of a number of powerful stats highlighted in Skillworks forum hosted by the Boston Foundation, entitled Advancing Workforce Equity in Boston: A Blueprint for Action. The event followed up a full-length report of the same name released in January by the National Equity Atlas (a research partnership between PolicyLink and the USC Equity Research Institute), shaped and informed by contributions of the SkillWorks Equity Working Group. At the forum, researchers and thinkers in the field convened to share and discuss the report’s data, which corroborated both qualitative observations and personal experiences of panelists. Karen Groce-Horan, Sr. Director of DEI Priorities at the United Way of Mass Bay, put it bluntly. “The research findings are not shocking to those who’ve lived it.” 

In short, our employment ecosystem is mired, however unconsciously, in White supremacist habits, and policies around other systems such as childcare or transit are only making matters worse. Is it Quixotic, though, in the midst of a tenacious pandemic to try to fix something so complex and entrenched? Boston Foundation CEO Paul Grogan posed that question in introducing the event, answering it with a decided no: “A crisis shouldn’t be wasted. People will dig deep to help in hard times, and be willing to come together around new ideas.”

To provide empirical support for those new ideas, report authors Abbie Langston of PolicyLink and Matthew Walsh of Burning Glass Technologies walked the Zoom audience through data findings, revealing our region’s diversifying demographics; the disappearance of middle-wage jobs paired with growth in number of jobs at the bottom and top but income growth restricted to the top; the racial gaps in who has “good jobs” and in how much people with comparable education are paid; and more. 


 Report Action Items

In addition to the data and analysis, the authors of the report made five recommendations for advancing workforce equity:

  1. Use sector-based workforce development strategies to build pathways for workers of color into good jobs.
  2. Leverage the development boom and sectoral growth to increase union participation, expand apprenticeship programs, and secure public financing for social programs.
  3. Mediate the relationship between educational institutions and employers to transition from degree-based hiring to skills-based hiring.
  4. Improve job quality through systems-changing public and private sector employment policies.
  5. Make racial equity a priority, and develop systems to track and measure progress and ensure accountability.

As Skillworks Executive Director Andre Green noted in opening remarks, the workforce development field is used to thinking of its work and progress in terms of expanding training, but noted, “Though training is important, it won’t get us to the equity we seek. We sometimes act as though a deficit in training is the cause of the problem. What we really need is systems change.”

Panelists highlighted an array of historic systemic barriers that have limited qualification for minimum wage and unemployment insurance protections; corporate hiring habits like requiring degrees for work merely to weed out applicants, and social supports such as access to childcare, affordability of housing, reliability of transit, and access to quality health care. These systems form the snares keeping many from advancing within their work or education, from accumulating wealth and giving their children better opportunities. 

Green pointed to the case of certified nursing assistants, whose ranks are disproportionately made up of women of color. They provide absolutely essential service, especially during a public health crisis. “They do vital work,” said Green. “But they don’t get a living wage or a pathway to rising in the health ranks. The way we reimburse Medicare and Medicaid is the limiting factor. We have to get beyond that and figure out how to incentivize companies to raise pay and make a job ‘good.’ And make it so advancement isn’t a cost for the worker.”

As panelist and researcher Rachel Lipson summed up: “We need to double down on employers, but also on policy. COVID has been a crazy shock to our economy that showed policymakers and White people generally that people of color are out of work for reasons other than work ethic or culture, etc. New provisions for paid sick leave, unemployment insurance for gig workers—things many White folks have long had—have made a dent. It isn’t enough, but a starting point. It cannot be a temporary thing.”

Forum Agenda

Panel Discussion and Audience Q&A
Kaitlyn Bean, Senior Program Officer, SkillWorks, The Boston Foundation (Moderator)
Andre Green, Executive Director, SkillWorks, The Boston Foundation
Karen Groce-Horan, Senior Director, DEI Priorities, United Way
Abbie Langston, Senior Associate, PolicyLink
Rachel Lipson, Director, the Project on Workforce, Harvard University

Closing Remarks
Monique Baptiste, Vice President, Global Philanthropy, JPMorgan Chase & Co.