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Flourishing Curtailed: The Link Between Education and Workplace Inequities

Lauren Della Bella

Inequities abound across virtually every element of our society. If inequity were somehow isolated to only one element, we would find it much easier to address and eradicate. But, unfortunately, that is not the case.

There’s inequity in healthcare, education, housing, the economy, the workplace, technology, the environment… the list goes on. These inequities are, of course, interrelated. They fuel each other. For instance, unhealthy environments — a burden placed largely on minorities and the poor — contribute to medical problems, which, in turn, can interfere with one’s ability to learn and work.

Since the firm I lead creates exceptional spaces for learning, working and gathering, I have found myself thinking a lot lately about the links between the inequities of education and those of the workplace.

 

Disproportionate Inequity

According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools with large numbers of Black and Latino students are less likely to have accomplished teachers, advanced classes and adequate facilities, to name just a few of the inequities. As hard as it is to believe, we are one of only a few countries in the world that spends more on well-off students than poor ones.

Nationally, Black students graduate from high school in meaningfully smaller percentages than white students. In some states, such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, the Black graduation rate is less than 70%.  Only 37 percent of Black and 36 percent of Hispanic graduates enroll in college.

This has tangible effects, which are exacerbated in times of turmoil such as we face now with COVID-19. As McKinsey and Company stated in a recent report: “Unfortunately, Black Americans are over-represented in nine of the ten lowest-paid, high-contact essential services, which elevates their risk of contracting the virus… Black workers are putting their lives and health on the line to provide goods and services that matter to our society.”

Studies by the New York Fed and the University of California, Santa Cruz report that the pandemic caused 41% of Black-owned businesses to shut down between February and April of this year, as did 32% of Latino businesses and 26% of Asian-owned firms. This compares to 17% of white-owned enterprises.

There’s little doubt that the pandemic is exacerbating inequities. And those will only get worse if very careful thought isn’t given to when and how to return to work and school in a manner that is safe for all. Special consideration must also be given to how to deliver certain critical school-based services, such as meals and mental health programs, to those in vulnerable populations learning remotely. COVID-19 only amplifies the pain and damage of hunger and struggles with mental health.

With such inequities — and the above stats only capture a small slice of the situation — how can we expect to lift minorities up and prepare them for maximum success in the workplace? We can’t. And when one’s career options are stymied in such a manner that living wages, not to mention lucrative salaries, are out of the question, the right to human flourishing is likewise stymied, if not trampled. The result? Unfair but wholly avoidable human suffering.

 

What the Workplace Demands: Lifelong Learning

The inequities in education are more pressing than ever before in part because of what the workplace is going to demand even more of: an embrace of lifelong learning. As the world and workplace change at an ever-increasing speed, career and income growth are increasingly demanding an ability and willingness to learn new things.

In essence, the necessity of lifelong learning for workplace success means that one can never really leave school. Yes, it takes on different forms for adults — work-based learning, community and technical college programs, self-guided study, etc. — but it’s learning just the same. And it’s essential. But how can we possibly expect those in marginalized communities who receive a less-than-adequate education to discover and sustain the joy of learning?

 

Fixing Inequities through Innovation

One clear result of these inequities in education and the workplace that may not come immediately to mind is innovation. As it has for several decades now, innovation remains one of the most celebrated aspects of business and even culture in general. You can’t read a business or lifestyle publication these days without encountering articles on the topic, many paying homage to those people and companies whose breakthroughs enhance our lives.

The thing is: research has revealed that patent holders come from high-income brackets and, what’s more, had parents who were educated and well-to-do. It makes one wonder just what life-changing innovations we’re all missing out on because some people didn’t get the quality education they needed — and deserved — to set them on a path of innovation and discovery that advances humanity.

We owe it to ourselves and each other to eradicate the inequities that curtail human flourishing. Addressing the inequities in education is a great place to start and will pay literal and physical dividends in the workplace of the future, too.

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