Isn’t the job market impartial? But then there are the blindsides of privilege.
Anyone who has lost their job, graduated from college, or searched for a new job in the ongoing pandemic knows one thing to be true: the job market, on the whole, has increasingly become an unforgiving place. Though the national rate of unemployment is continuing to decline and many Americans are returning to work, the job market is functioning at a deficit of more than 8 million jobs compared with pre-pandemic levels. (NPR) This, of course, suggests that there are millions of Americans still out of work or struggling to find work in what many believe to be an employer’s market.
Not only is our current market highly competitive, though: it’s also rife with injustice. People of color and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum continue to be at a disadvantage when entering the labor market due to skyrocketing college tuition, the burden of student debt, the increasing importance of social networks to gain employment, and the prevalence of underpaying or unpaid internships, often essential for gaining experience for entry-level jobs. We’ll take a look at some of these problems that continue to plague the job market and employment seekers today and offer some possible remedies to root out exclusionary practices and create a more level playing field.
A Brief History of Systemic Inequality in the Job Market
At its core, the U.S. economy and our labor market is plagued by inequality due to decades of discriminatory policies and the legacy of slavery, which still adversely affect BIPOC populations today. As we explored in February’s article, our capitalist system as we know it was built on the exploitation of enslaved Blacks. Even after slavery was formally outlawed in 1863, Jim Crow laws were enacted in many states to prevent newly freed Black workers from entering certain occupations, specifically those outside of “farming or domestic servitude,” thus creating occupational segregation. (Center for American Progress)
By the time the New Deal was enacted during the Great Depression, Black workers were disproportionately employed in service, domestic, and agricultural sectors. While the New Deal policies tended to improve standards of living for workers, such as outlawing child labor and instituting the 40-hour workweek, many agricultural and domestic workers–disproportionately people of color–were excluded from certain protections, such as minimum wage and overtime protections. This exclusion of many workers of color from protections that could reduce poverty and improve economic mobility instead “helped institutionalize and validate racial disparities in economic well-being.” (Center for American Progress) Further, while unions grew in power over the next few decades, affording workers higher wages and critical employer-granted benefits like healthcare, union-weakening legislation passed over the ensuing decades would only disadvantage minorities further.
This economic inequality experienced by people of color, evidenced by the income gap between Black and Hispanic and white Americans, persists today. In 2016, the median income for whites was $47,958; for Blacks, it was $31,082 and for Hispanics, $30,400. (Pew Research Center) And in the wake of the pandemic, unemployment for Black and Hispanic workers remains higher than the average. (NPR)
An Uneven Playing Field: Hiring Practices & Market Realities that Disadvantage Candidates
It’s clear that systemic problems persist in our economic system, particularly for people of color. But what about within the hiring process and job market overall? Have affirmative action policies and more diverse pools of candidates for jobs ensured that the hiring process treats candidates fairly regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status?
Unfortunately, studies suggest that this may not be the case. Despite the passage of anti-discrimination civil rights legislation and the implementation of affirmative action policies in many workplaces, white applicants for jobs are “far more likely to be offered interviews than Black and Latinx applicants, regardless of educational attainment, gender, or labor market conditions.” (Center for American Progress) Much research also suggests that those applicants with “more ethnic-sounding names” are more likely to face hiring bias and “less likely to be called back for roles they are qualified for compared to their counterparts.” (Forbes)
Also at the heart of the issue is the ever-increasing cost of attaining a college degree, and the prevalence of unpaid internships, which allow those from privileged backgrounds, disproportionately white people, to gain experience in their respective fields because they can afford to take on unpaid labor. Poorer and disadvantaged students–disproportionately minorities–are less likely to be able to work for no wages due to the cost of rent, tuition, and/or a lack of parental financial support. (Good Food Jobs) To make matters worse, more than half–61%–of entry-level jobs, which college graduates apply for, require 3 years of experience at minimum, and the amount of required experience is increasing by nearly 3% every year. (TalentWorks) This trend solidifies the importance of having college internships relevant to one’s field, over, for example, taking a retail job that helps pay the bills.
As many of us have also experienced, who you know when applying for jobs is just as important, if not more important, than what you know; the phrase “network to get work” is commonplace on LinkedIn feeds and job forums. But the increasing importance of networking actually puts Black applicants at a disadvantage, who are less able to rely on “social capital” and parental social networks to get a “foot in the door” for a job. (Wall Street Journal) In fact, “white men tend to have the best social networks” and “preferentially get…networking advantages,” putting women and people of color at a disadvantage for employment opportunities. (The Atlantic)
Leveling the Playing Field & Possible Remedies
How can we make getting a job fairer for students and applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds? And how can we improve economic mobility on the whole? For starters, implementing some degree of student loan forgiveness would benefit many new graduates and early career professionals, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is clear evidence of a racial gap in student loan debt, as Black college graduates “owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates,” borrowing, on average, $32,047, “while white and Hispanic borrowers owe roughly $18,685 and $15,853, respectively.” (CNBC) Forgiving student debt, particularly for those in greatest economic need, has also been suggested as a way to help build intergenerational wealth through freeing up more funds that can be used to seek homeownership. Canceling debt for Black college graduates, in particular, can help to shrink the racial wealth gap, where Black households currently have “about 1/13th of the wealth of the average white household,” as earnings can be used to pay a down payment on a home rather than largely being funneled towards student loan payments. (CNBC)
In addition, we can outlaw unpaid internships, which work “against class mobility” and, in many fields, keep out “low-income students from what is essentially required to gain future employment after graduation.” (The Atlantic) In a similar vein, we can make it illegal at the federal level for employers to ask candidates about their current salaries in order to promote wage fairness and fight against gender pay inequality. A handful of states have already done so, and for good reason: states that enacted these laws “generated substantial pay increases for Black (+13%) and female (+8%) candidates who took new jobs.” (Harvard Business Review). As asking candidates about current wages creates a “bargaining advantage” for employers, employers can continue to underpay new hires by offering a slight increase to already underpaid candidates; doing away with an “access to salary histories would [allow] Black and female job applicants [to] see a more level playing field.” (Harvard Business Review)
There are certainly other measures we can take as well: raising the minimum wage; strengthening anti-discrimination laws, particularly for LGBTQ+ individuals who still face gaps in anti-discrimination workplace protections in several states; and addressing the issue of the increasing unaffordability of college. In addition, organizations can adopt a blind resume system to help root out biases in the selection and hiring process, implement more impartiality in hiring decisions, and recognize the importance of giving opportunities to underrepresented groups.
Even within our own workplaces, we can remain vigilant about potential favoritism and instances where privilege may play a role in hiring and selection decisions. Ultimately, by rooting out the exclusionary practices that prevent disadvantaged groups from advancing within the labor market, we can create a more robust and diverse workforce, ensuring that every American entering the labor market has a fair shot.