Skills and training
Changemaker Q&A

Shifting Narratives and Policies to Support Black Workers’ Advancement: A Q&A with Bill Spriggs

Elizabeth ViviritoJune 09, 2023

The world lost a giant in the fight for equity and justice with Bill Spriggs’ passing in June of 2023. WorkRise was grateful for the opportunity to host this conversation earlier this year, and we share this Q&A as a testament to his great legacy and support of our work as a valued member of our Leadership Board.

It was mid-October when I caught up with Bill Spriggs, a professor of economics at Howard University and a member of the WorkRise Leadership Board. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas had just released its Beige Book, a collection of anecdotal information about regional economic conditions, and the number of times “recession” was mentioned had ticked up since the previous month. News outlets seized on the headline.

Fears of recession are not new, but in our current moment, Spriggs worries that talk of recession and remedies to avoid it—such as aggressive monetary policy—could undermine the postpandemic economic recovery. Debates in Washington about root causes of inflation often lead to discussions of worker shortages, which, in his view, misses the point.

“No one is talking about the role of climate change, about the cost of the War in Ukraine,” about the food and oil market disruptions, or about the pandemic’s ongoing effect on supply chains, all of which are leading to higher prices. Nobody is discussing the core issue, which is that there are fewer good jobs with great benefits than in the past, according to Spriggs.

It’s the necessary wisdom of a second-generation professor fluent in translating economic ideas to students. His career is a storied one, having served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations in various roles. A former assistant secretary of policy in the Department of Labor, he is now the chief economist at the AFL-CIO in addition to his professorship at Howard.

Despite his criticisms, he believes that economists, business leaders, and policy leaders can work together to rebuild the economy in a way that achieves results for Black workers and others who’ve been systematically excluded. “We have this one moment to correct the downward cycle,” he said. “We need to make the most of it.”

A focus on worker and skills shortages is grounded in bias

“Workers don’t want to stick around.”

“People just don’t want to work.”

These popular refrains are two examples of antiworker narratives that have existed for decades, according to Spriggs. The narratives are also perpetuated by employers that say workers don’t have the necessary skills to fill job openings and that workers need more training or education. The so-called skills gap explanation puts the onus on workers rather than on the ability of employers to recruit and retain workers. It’s also part of a decades-long misinterpretation of the facts, Spriggs points out, and is grounded in bias.

“It’s a dressed-up way of saying that Black people are inferior,” Spriggs said. “If you want to see discrimination, just look at these two groups: why is it that in October, the unemployment rate for white high school dropouts was 4.8 percent, while the overall Black unemployment rate was 5.9 percent?”

Spriggs has called economists “lazy” for the assumptions they make about Black workers. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020, he published an open letter to economists, urging them to “become the empiricists we pretend” to be and to “accept the massive investment African Americans have made in improving their human capital.” In other words, Black workers have the skills and training required to be in good jobs but still face headwinds because of discrimination.

Shifting focus away from skills gaps and worker shortages requires business, policy, and academic leaders to consider different solutions that shift away from individual failings to systemic inequities.

Postpandemic employment has boosted wages for women and Black men

Spriggs points to manufacturing and construction as two promising sectors to boost the wages of Black workers. In these sectors, “employment is above prepandemic levels. Firms are recruiting in numbers we haven’t seen,” Spriggs said. With a four- to seven-year apprenticeship period requirement for building and construction jobs, it takes time to scale up.

“In two years, we’ve shifted Black men and women of all races into manufacturing and construction jobs,” he noted. “We did this without worker training programs. And today, there’s a higher share of Black men working in higher wage industries.”

Where good jobs with good pay exist, workers seek them out. Yet systemic discrimination plagues many high-wage industries. Black workers with IT jobs (PDF) make up a higher percent of the workforce around Virginia (20 percent) and Atlanta (25 percent) than Silicon Valley (less than 6 percent). Why? “It’s clear that geographic and occupational segregation still exist,” said Spriggs.

Addressing these forms of discrimination requires business leaders to understand what they need to change to create a more diverse workforce in their sector and in their region.

The market won’t solve these problems—employers and institutions must step in

Today, there’s an expectation from employers that “I can always just find skilled workers.” This expectation didn’t always exist, particularly in manufacturing. The General Motors Institute (today, Kettering University) in Flint Michigan dates back to the 1930s, although GM’s formal support wound down in the mid-1980s. “AT&T fully understood they couldn’t get someone to run a switchboard,” Spriggs said, and they invested in workforce training.

Much of this corporate training has dwindled, and the gap has shifted responsibility to community colleges and higher ed to provide training and skills to workers. Yet companies can and must invest in workforce development if jobs require specialized skills. Rather than looking at human capital as disposable—in other words, that the turnover of workers is too high to justify investment—employers should invest in people and provide good wages and benefits, which has been shown to increase retention.

Spriggs continues to be bothered by “the permanence of the pay gap and the unemployment gap” among Black and white workers and the persistence of discrimination. Yet, he sees hope. Over half of the states across the US have raised the minimum wage. Antidiscrimination policies exist, though they need more enforcement. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize or join a labor union, would go far toward leveling the playing field.

“Institutions matter,” he said. “You can’t do this work with individuals” alone.

Elizabeth Vivirito is a Midwestern-based writer and communications strategist.

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