It was an unlikely moment for a surge in corporate leadership. In late spring 2020, the death toll across the United States was nearing 100,000 because of the coronavirus disease. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act had become law, providing $2 trillion in aid to hospitals, small businesses, and state and local governments. Unemployment surged with millions of frontline workers losing their jobs, while many others settled into an indefinite period of remote work.
Then in May, George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police. For all the urgency business leaders felt to be responsive to their employees during the pandemic, it was Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests over long-standing racial inequities and injustice that seemed to have spurred corporate America to remarkably broad action. The eye-popping pledges to dismantle racial inequality—over $50 billion, by some accounts—the racial equity statements, and the commitments to Black-owned small business were abundant.
Two years later, it’s difficult to assess the results of these efforts. For Dane Linn, senior vice president of Corporate Initiatives at the Business Roundtable (BRT), and a member of the WorkRise Leadership Board, efforts to tackle racial inequality in the workplace didn’t start or end in 2020.
“I see signs of progress,” he said in a recent interview. “Employers are not waiting for the federal government to address these issues. These are the challenges that employees would like to have addressed today, and our CEOs are responding to those challenges.”
An association of over 200 CEOs who lead companies that collectively support 37 million American jobs, the BRT is built on a model of hearing what leaders are doing and sharing these lessons broadly to accelerate the pace of change. “These are America’s largest employers,” Linn said. “The level of scale isn’t possible elsewhere.”
When the pandemic began in earnest, the BRT had already been a forum for worker-centric leadership, and, in fact, in 2019 it issued a statement about its commitment to its stakeholders, including employees. “One of the things that many of our employers have done even before the pandemic is listen to their employees, whether that be through surveys or town hall meeting,” Linn said. “That is the beginning of thinking about what else needs to change in the system, whether through company practices or policies.”
Employees demand action on racial equity
Some leaders knew the value of centering worker voices, and those who did were perhaps more equipped for the tumult that came next. In the summer of 2020, people across the nation took to the streets to make their voices heard, and in Zoom meetings, interest surged in corporate policies on racial equity, social justice, and the role of corporate leadership for Black Americans.
BRT CEOs responded. In June 2020, Doug McMillon, then-chairman of BRT, and president and CEO of Walmart, established a special committee. Leaders from AT&T, Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, General Motors, JPMorgan Chase, Marriott, Eaton, and more called for change. Immediately, several policy options were being discussed. In July, the BRT called on Congress to pass bipartisan policing reform.
After consulting with over 100 experts from across the ideological spectrum to understand the key policy considerations around closing racial gaps in economic opportunity, the BRT announced a set of policy recommendations and corporate initiatives to address racial disparities in education, employment, finance, health, housing, and the justice system. Both were aimed at ensuring Black Americans have access to good jobs, supporting Black-owned small businesses, helping people of color develop financial security, and pressing policymakers to address early educational outcomes for Black students. Despite gains they have made during the recovery, Black men and women experience consistently higher unemployment than their white counterparts.
Dismantling bias takes time, dedication, and intention
Yet systems change across hundreds of companies, and their collective millions of workers takes time, dedication, and intention. It requires going deep into business practices to understand where bias exists and navigating a path forward. The BRT’s Multiple Pathways Initiative takes this work seriously. Nearly 80 BRT companies are participating in the effort to advance skills-based talent strategies, which are key to expanding jobs and economic opportunity to more Americans by increasing diversity and equity in employment. In September, the BRT released several playbooks and over 50 company case studies to model what organizational change could look like.
Two-and-a-half years later, we are still seeing “a large number of people out of the workforce, out of the economy, and there are many more who are working, but they’re stuck,” Linn said. “Worker mobility requires skills, and the only way to get unstuck is to acquire new skills.” When Linn spoke about skills, he was not referring to degrees or credentials, which have been used as proxies for an individual’s capability in the workforce. He said he is instead focused on companies’ language, culture, structure, and technology systems that produce equitable opportunities.
A focus on skills—and more financial support for training—can expand opportunity
“Skills are five times more predictive of a person’s future performance than their education,” the BRT’s “Skills-Based Internal Mobility Playbook” reports. This approach pushes business leaders to put 70 percent of their efforts toward on-the-job learning and development. It calls on leaders to rethink “equitable” economic mobility in the workforce, meeting employees where they are, understanding that different people want different things from their jobs, and providing the support needed to mentor and train workers whose needs are not being met.
Linn pointed to persistent gaps for workers, noting that now we’re “at a time when a number of women have left the workforce and have yet to return. Childcare, for example, is still so important.” Formerly incarcerated adults, about one-third of the US population, face an unemployment rate more than five times the national average, a challenge the Second Chance Business Coalition and members of the BRT are dedicated to addressing.
Affordability will continue to be a problem over the next year for struggling workers, though Linn does believe Pell Grants could help alleviate some of these pressures. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law stands to create up to 1.5 million jobs over the next 10 years. The CHIPS and Science Act similarly makes historic investments for US workers and may help address rising costs spurred by semiconductor chip and other high-tech shortages driving consumer prices higher. “Yet these won’t be effective without Pell Grant expansion to cover short-term programs,” Linn said, a restriction the BRT would like lifted to help people secure good-paying jobs. Evidence is mixed on the labor market returns of Pell Grants for short-term programs.
There remains work to be done, but Linn is optimistic: “What we’ve seen thus far is that companies are using these tools to inform their changes. We’re encouraged by the level of commitment among our members. Meeting workforce needs is critical to creating equal opportunity for everyone, and critical for reducing the racial wealth gap that exists in this country.”
Elizabeth Vivirito is a Midwestern-based writer and communications strategist.