In the newest Project Catapult Paper, President & CEO of Jewish Vocational Services Jerry Rubin examines core workforce development ideas and reconsiders what's still relevant in the COVID recession.read more
By Rougui Diallo, former Chief of Staff, Resilient Coders
In our contribution to the fourth essay of the Catapult Papers, about leveraging the young adult workforce, we took issue with the workforce development field’s reliance on practices that preserve, if not exacerbate, the racial wealth gap. Our field’s fixation on access to college and the wide use of testing fail our communities of color and perpetuate inequities by upholding metrics for success that privilege whiteness and affluence over ability. When we called for employers to hire for potential rather than pedigree, we were calling for a redefinition of what it means to be capable of doing a job. As trainers, it is our responsibility to understand the aptitudes necessary to perform a job instead of relying on proxies for success that carry historical and systemic inequities.
This responsibility raises an uncomfortable question: As workforce development organizations, where does our allegiance lie? With the job seekers or with the employer? The truth is that by trying to connect workers with employers, we exist at a very awkward nexus, at the locus of conflict, and we have to decide which side we are on. Too often we frame our work as a win-win—a win for employers who are looking for good talent and a win for job seekers who are looking for good jobs—but that ignores the contentious reality of the job market. For years, our field has been chasing ways to better serve employers’ interests by upholding exclusionary standards for what is “good talent” and lowering the barriers for what constitutes a “good job,” thereby creating a situation where job seekers are devalued, their expectations tempered, and their labor cheapened. The darker your skin and the lower your income, the truer this is.
That’s why to the core concept of being market responsive, we would hold up the duty to be community responsive. Our organizations cannot pretend to be speaking on behalf of the job seekers we admit into our programs until we become truly community-led. We can start by ensuring that all levels of our organizations are representative of the job seekers we serve, and that those job seekers have real power in determining our strategic direction. At Resilient Coders for example, 100 percent of our staff are people of color or Latinx. Most of us don’t have college degrees and come from low-income and/or immigrant families. Three out of five board members, including a program alumna, are from similar backgrounds as our students. Furthermore, as a training provider in tech, we believe we should be led by Black and Brown technologists, particularly our alumni. We established an Alumni Council to oversee our training program and staff members, and created specific roles within our organization that are reserved for alumni. As we continue to scale our operations and interact with employers, we are explicit about our mandate to build worker power in companies that hire from us.
It has been said at nauseum that the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd only uncovered what many of us already knew: Our labor market and economy are racially unjust, and the workforce development field has been complicit in maintaining the status quo. So let us be clear. We cannot afford to only “go big and go bold” in our scale, advocacy and innovation. We must also be radical in our demands and unapologetic in our stance; we are on the side of the job seekers and the workers. Oppressive constructs are too easily re-branded. Take, for example, the field’s new infatuation with income-sharing agreements, which require job seekers to pay for their training only if they are placed in a job. What seems to many as a progressive and innovative way to finance training is in reality a form of indentured servitude. Not only is it unacceptable to further indebt a population that is already lagging behind in wealth building, it also fails to properly address the question of who should be paying for training. Resilient Coders rejects the narrative that employers give jobs to the trainee, who operates from a position of deficit and is expected to "invest" in their future through more debt. This narrative only exacerbates the racial wealth gap and devalues the worker. We believe that workers should be regarded as full and equal partners to the employer in creating value. Employers need a trained talent pool; they should pay for it.