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The labor market has rapidly evolved to attract and retain job candidates who express high levels of creativity, analysis, and problem solving skills. These usually well-paying desk jobs include, for example, accountants, financial analysts, software engineers, and at a bare minimum, they typically require a four-year college degree. But is a college degree even plausible when basic necessities like housing, food, and healthcare are so hard to come by? 

This is the difficult choice that faces many would-be college students: to choose between obtaining a college degree, which may unlock greater career opportunities, or forego college altogether to obtain immediate — although possibly lower-paying — employment.

According to a 2018 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) titled “The End of Men and Rise of Women in the Highly-Skilled Labor Market,” the percentage of men working highly-skilled jobs has fallen steadily since 1980. More disturbingly, this research reveals that the percentage of men not working any job at all has increased significantly.

The Pandemic Makes Things Worse

While all men are a part of this phenomenon, in America, Black men feel its impact most acutely. The generational effects of reduced and inhibited access to highly-skilled career opportunities and college degrees has the potential to upend decades of progress toward workplace equity for the Black community – a community, quite frankly, that is often in short supply of many of the essential resources necessary for social mobility. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, and many Black men are precariously balancing employment and education opportunities with urgent family obligations. 

According to an article by the Economic Policy Institute titled “Black and Hispanic workers are much less likely to be able to telework,” “less than 30% of workers can work from home, and the ability to work from home differs enormously by race and ethnicity.” More specifically, their  research expounds, less than one in five Black workers and roughly one in six Hispanic workers are able to work from home, compared to 29.9% of White workers and 37% of Asian workers. 

Black workers are also less likely to have easy COVID-19 vaccine access. A recent study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, in conjunction with the US National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, found that zip codes inhabited by primarily Black residents are 67% more likely to have a shortage of primary care physicians. Recent reports from Kaiser Health News also assert, “in 16 states that have released data by race, White residents are being vaccinated [against COVID-19] at significantly higher rates than Black residents, according to the analysis – in many cases two to three times higher.”

This situation is certainly not new, but it is still mostly invisible. 

According to Medical News Today, “Racial discrimination permeates the healthcare systems of many countries, including the United States. This has negative consequences for both patients and healthcare workers, leading to higher risks of illness and, in some cases, lower standards of care for people of color (POC).” The good news may be that, in light of the pandemic, racial discrimination and issues of equity in healthcare are gaining renewed attention. At this moment, however, most Black men don’t have the privilege to work from home and do not receive the same access to easy, affordable, quality healthcare. 

These racially-driven, systemically-upheld inequities and injustices only contribute to the challenge for Black men to achieve college degrees and highly-skilled professional work. Individually and in the aggregate, these inequities work together to put many young Black men at great risk of physical, mental, and emotional trauma. Many have found balance in this struggle by opting not to enroll in college at all, since doing so would feel like abandoning their  families and communities.

Weighing Options

For some, the decision not to attend college boils down to a simple weighing of pros, cons, and expected return on investment – frankly, a college degree might not feel worth the risk or the expense. I recently sat down with Dr. Adrian L. Mayse, CPA, Chair and Associate Professor of Accounting at Howard University, who posed a very straightforward question that drives at the heart of the college decision-making process for many Black men across the nation.

“If I have a friend who is a barber,” says Dr. Mayse, taking the perspective of a would-be college graduate, “and he is able to make six figures annually as a barber, why go to a 4-year school and take out loans?” For many Black men, the answer is a no-brainer, especially for those who see college enrollment as a financial burden not worth carrying or as merely a slower means to the same end.

What does this mean for the future workforce? Chances are, if you’re working a desk job, you’re less likely to have Black men as your coworkers. This is where partners and allies of the Black community must use their privilege and influence to create opportunities for the next generation of Black leaders by investing in partnerships, scholarships, donations, and paid internships for Black college students to help flip the perception of the college experience as a unnecessary and overly-expensive investment that will not yield great returns. 

How You Can Help to Reverse the Trend 

According to Harvard University labor economist Larry Katz, “much of the rising wage inequality in recent history can be traced to rising differences between the wages of the highly educated and the less educated.” Certainly, there’s no arguing the direct relationship between education, wealth, and social mobility, and for decades we’ve known Black people in America to be underserved and marginalized in the distribution of economic resources and their corresponding access to opportunities. But what can we do about it now? How can we help to reverse the trend?

The key is to invest in Black communities as a talent pipeline. Take Goldman Sachs, for example, who recently announced selecting forty Howard University students for their inaugural “Market Madness: HBCU Possibilities Program.” Or IBM, with their new IBM-HBCU Quantum Center. Both programs serve as talent pipeline solutions by increasing access to high-quality learning and development through Historically Black College and Universities, or HBCUs. 

What can you do at your workplace specifically? Reach out to your local HBCU and work to create a mutual partnership. Consider creating a yearly scholarship donation or establishing even one paid internship for an HBCU student to learn from working in your small business. Then, learn what you can about diversity, equity, and inclusion so you can prepare your workplace culture to be welcoming, respectful, and inclusive of Black men. 

With these and other programs in place, our nation will be in a better position to argue the value of college degrees to young Black men who see no future return on their investment. As Melonie Parker, Chief Diversity Officer at Google, has said, “this is the first time in history corporations have been publicly called to account for the racial reckoning happening not just in the United States but around the world.” And with that historic reckoning comes a responsibility to invest in marginalized racial communities for the sake of greater innovation, productivity, diversity of thought, and problem solving.

Support Your Black Workforce, Now

To support the growth and development of your Black employees, consider these six steps:.

  1. Be intentional about your demonstrated commitment to supporting Black employees, starting right now. Don’t wait for a special invitation. Be proactive, not reactive. 
  1. Be courageous enough to accept the things you don’t know and to learn from your mistakes.
  1. Be mindful that, within the Black community, each person will have their own individual experience of what it’s like to be Black in America. 
  1. Be culturally competent and work on diversifying your experiences with and exposure to Black people and Black culture.
  1. Be collaborative. Creating an inclusive workplace culture is an ongoing and organization-wide effort that requires buy-in at every level and within every department.

Inclusive leadership from allies to the Black community is key to unlocking the resources and opportunities that Black men need to be successful and to reinvest in college education as a pathway to highly-skilled professional opportunities.


Isaiah E. Bailey is the founder of the Black Accountants Talent Network (BATN) and a member of For(bes) the Culture.