The majority of Black employees are actively looking fora new job. These three strategies can help keep this critical workforce demographic.
By Dr. Kimberly Underwood and Michael Collins
Many businesses seek to reduce budgets in 2023. Unfortunately, many are cutting back in the wrong places. Amid economic and political headwinds, 18% of companies are decreasing investment in DEI efforts, including trainings, support for ERGs and more. It’s imperative that leaders reverse these cuts, and that others don’t follow suit, as new research underscores the value of direct support for diverse talent in recruitment and retention, particularly among Black Americans looking to advance in their career. Increased diversity efforts can enhance innovation and creativity and lead to increased financial rewards for organizations.
The 2023 Career Optimism Index®, a University of Phoenix Survey of 5,000 employees and 500 employers across the U.S., reveals that Black Americans are among the most economically optimistic demographic groups, despite the career challenges and barriers they face. The study finds that more Black Americans (84%) than White Americans (79%) are hopeful about the future of their careers. However, Black Americans’ career optimism doesn’t lie with their current employers. Their hope is grounded in their own sense of resilience and personal efficacy, versus the belief that their current employers are directly supporting their career growth.
This led to a “free agent” labor market, where the workforce feels confident in opportunities available to them and they are willing to pursue alternative job paths to achieve their career goals and work/life balance needs. The study finds 65% of Black Americans are either actively looking for a new job or expect to in the next six months, compared to 53% of the total workforce on average. In fact, 53% of Black American workers say if their current employer offered them a severance package of three months’ pay, they’d take it and leave the company.
The good news is that 61% of Black Americans report they’d stay with their current employer if they felt something would change, including increased mentorship and skilling opportunities. Leadership should invest further into these groups and channel their optimism into internal opportunities to retain talented workers and improve upward mobility, particularly when the economy is tight.
The University of Phoenix’s 2023 Career Optimism Index® finds more Black Americans (84%) than White Americans (79%) are hopeful about the future of their careers.
Based on career barriers identified by the Career Optimism Index® and joint efforts by the University of Phoenix and Jobs for the Future to develop solutions for enabling Black economic advancement through social capital building, here are three tactics leaders can implement to elevate Black workers and in turn recruit and retain this crucial workforce demographic by leaning into their sense of career optimism.
1. Maximize mentoring and meaningful networking. One critical barrier Black Americans face in their careers is a lack of professional social capital. Search Institute defines social capital as “the resources that arise from a web of relationships which people can access and mobilize to help them improve their lives and achieve their goals,” a proven accelerant to workers’ success today. More than half of Black Americans are currently seeking support on expanding their professional networks (64%), finding mentors and advocates (63%), and connecting with others in their field or desired field (63%). In collaboration with University of Phoenix, JFF’s Center for Racial Economic Equity developed a framework for employers and higher education institutions to support career advancement through social capital strategies, with a particular focus on Black learners and workers. In the development of this framework, JFF found employers play a key role in supporting their Black workers throughout the process of building and maintaining their network of professional relationships. According to the framework, leaders should be trained on creating inclusive cultures, and providing mentorship and formal sponsorship relationships in culturally relevant and equitable manners.
Managers can help their reports identify existing connections and provide advice for facilitating ongoing conversations. Programs can be put in place company wide, both to help workers connect with colleagues who can assist them with specific, immediate career needs, and formalize mentorships with individuals who can provide sustained career support. Managers can also implement formal one-to-one partnerships, opportunities to network across partnerships, and opt-in reverse mentoring—pairing employees together to bring fresh perspectives and offer insight on strategic issues, leadership, and culture. By empowering workers to grow their networks internally, leadership will increase employee loyalty while developing a more collaborative community.
2. Clarify pathways to upward mobility as part of onboarding. The Career Optimism Index also finds that nearly a third of Black Americans say they don’t feel they can advance in their career at their current job. JFF’s social capital framework underscores this theme: Access to and information about advancement pathways isn’t always distributed equitably. By providing clarity on internal mobility from day one to all workers, leaders can increase employee trust. For example, developing a standardized career navigation and mapping process is effective for assisting employees in developing investment in their professional journeys within a company, as they set goals and identify milestones to work toward with employer support. Building upon the previous point about networking, as part of managers helping workers create individualized plans to achieve their career goals, they can help identify the relationships each worker holds or could hold within the organization and how these may be helpful for their growth and advancement. Supervisors should openly share information about advancement opportunities and pathways within the organization, and what steps workers must take to be strong candidates.
The onboarding process is an important time for leadership to provide clarity on access to resources to address other significant professional barriers, including compensation and mental health. When employees know who to speak with to have their needs addressed and where to go from there to access the appropriate resources, their trust in their organization will deepen.
53% of Black American workers say if their current employer offered them a severance package of three months’ pay, they’d take it and leave the company.
3. Enable a continuous learning journey. Learning and skilling specifically are identified by the Career Optimism Index as areas where Black Americans desire further workplace investment. In fact, 70% of all workers say if their company gave them more opportunities to apply new skills, they’d be more likely to stay throughout their career. Among Black Americans, 70% say they need support in developing new skills.
According to the social capital framework, skills-based learning programs should also be relationship-driven, including structured mentorship and opportunities for feedback. From formal coursework to informal lunch-and-learns, employers can ensure greater recruitment and retention through ongoing skilling opportunities. These offerings shouldn’t be treated as one-offs. Employees must be able to be constantly reskilled in the workplace and have options to choose from more broad professional development opportunities and more specialized skills training courses. Once these skills are acquired, there must then be opportunities to apply them on the job. In fact, employers should map which skills training or professional development modules are most important for which jobs and ensure workers have access to this information to select courses accordingly. Employers should also ensure these learning opportunities are accessible to all workers by covering costs upfront and allowing workers to engage in job-related coursework during working hours.
Providing continuous support, whether in relationship-building, career mapping, or skilling, allows employees to remain engaged in their roles and grow with the business, providing reasons for them to stay by establishing sources of career optimism internally, in addition to capabilities for business growth.
By adopting strategies to increase Black workers’ career optimism and professional social capital, HR leaders can significantly elevate the lives of Black workers and accelerate Black economic advancement.
Dr. Kimberly Underwood, Ph.D., MBA is chair of the University of Phoenix Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Research.
Michael Collins is VP of JFF Center for Racial Economic Equity.