Mark Wray was working at a movie theater concession stand when pandemic lockdowns hit last year. The cinema closed and he lost his job.
But instead of looking for another low-paying job, Mr. Wray took another route. He found a basic technology and business skills education program, completed it, and landed a job with a fast growing online mortgage lender. He started in March, working in customer service and technical support. He earns about $ 55,000 a year, compared to $ 17,000 at the movies.
“The pandemic, strangely, was an opportunity,” said Mr. Wray, 25, a high school graduate and living in Charlotte, North Carolina. “And this job is a huge stepping stone for me.”
People returning to the workforce after the pandemic expect more from their employers, pushing companies to raise wages, give bonuses and improve health care and education plans. Payroll checks are getting bigger and bigger. Wages rose sharply in July, up 4% from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Labor. For workers in leisure and hospitality companies, wages have increased by almost 10%.
Yet many workers are also looking for something else: a career path, not a dead end job.
In recent months, companies have struggled to fill jobs for tasks like serving tables, stocking shelves or flipping burgers. According to a survey by Joblist, a job search engine, nearly 40% of ex-workers in the country’s hospitality industry say they don’t plan to return to work in hotels, restaurants or bars.
For many workers, the problem is less negotiating for more money in a tight labor market than finding a job with a better future.
“People in lower paying jobs say, ‘I’m going to move on to something better,” said Stuart Andreason, director of the Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Their demands are already redefining corporate policies. Major employers of low-wage hourly workers, including Walmart, Chipotle and Amazon, have announced improvements to their education and training programs. Even Amazon, which has huge turnover among its warehouse workers, has started talking more about improving long-term prospects for its employees.
Some companies are highlighting their new or increased commitment to worker development to attract job applicants. According to Emsi Burning Glass, a labor market analysis company, job postings from employers for positions that did not require a four-year degree included the term “career advancement” 35% more often from March to July than from March to July. during the same period two years ago. “Training” was mentioned 32% more often.
The new emphasis, if sustained and widespread, would be a significant change in corporate behavior. Companies have often viewed workers – with the exception of those at the top – as a cost to be reduced rather than an asset that would become more and more valuable with investment. Training programs have been cut back and career ladders lowered.
A measure of the higher aspirations of workers is the surge in interest and applications reported by large nonprofits, like Year Up, Per Scholas and NPower, with decades of experience in training and researching good jobs, mainly for under-represented groups. They are all expanding.
Mr. Wray is a graduate of Merit America, a new non-profit organization that started in 2018. This year, Merit America is on track to reach over 1,400 students, up from around 500 last year.
According to experts, the extent of the opportunity for striving workers may depend on the overhaul of the hiring and promotion practices of American companies. For example, companies have long used the requirement of a four-year college degree as a blunt selection tool for many high-paying jobs. Yet about two-thirds of American workers do not have a four-year degree – and nearly 80 percent of Latino workers and almost 70 percent of black workers do not.
According to workplace experts, the college degree filter is not a good indicator of success for many jobs.
This view has gained much more attention and support in the wake of calls for social and racial justice following the murder of George Floyd last year. Hundreds of companies have made commitments to diversify their workforce. It remains to be seen whether these declarations and commitments will be followed by action.
But people who have worked in workforce development for decades say they are seeing evidence of real change. In the past, companies have often criticized the education system for not producing enough qualified people of color to hire, said Elyse Rosenblum, founder and CEO of Grads of Life, which advises companies on inclusive hiring practices.
“But now companies are increasingly looking in-house and taking ownership of this challenge,” Ms. Rosenblum said. “It’s a completely different posture.”
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Support from business leaders who control budgets and hiring decisions, experts say, is vital.
At Bank of America, one of the executives in this role is David Reilly, who manages the technology for its banking and business operations around the world. Mr Reilly grew up in the East End of London, did not go to college and got his start in tech by working nights in a London data center, loading data storage drives and by cleaning the printer.
He has shown an aptitude for the job, and promotions have followed, leading to senior positions at Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley. He joined Bank of America ten years ago.
Her career, Mr. Reilly said, has been “blessed by people willing to give me a chance.”
At Bank of America, Mr. Reilly has helped champion efforts to develop mobile, bottom-up career paths. Bank workers volunteer thousands of hours a year to lecture and mentor recruits without a college degree. The effort also involves regular discussions with managers about the next steps in a career.
Since 2018, through recruiting partnerships with nonprofits such as NPower and Year Up, as well as community colleges, the bank has hired more than 10,000 workers from low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
Carolina Ferreira had low-paying jobs as a restaurant hostess and assistant to a preschool teacher before completing a four-month program at NPower in Basic Tech Skills. That was enough to land a technical support internship at Bank of America in 2017.
The internship was followed by a contract job and then a full-time position. She is now a technical support analyst at the commodities trading desk and earns over $ 80,000 per year. “I’m still pretty junior, but it’s been a big step for me,” said Ms Ferreira, 26, who lives in Queens.
Bank of America has strong links with training programs focused on developing the potential of people like Ashantee Franklin.
Ms Franklin, 24, lost her job at a daycare and dog walking service after the Covid-19 hit last year. She decided to make the failure an opportunity, applied to the NPower program, and completed the four-month course.
The dog-sitting service had reopened and Ms Franklin was back walking the dogs when an NPower placement coordinator called about an opening in an entry-level program at Bank of America. She applied, did well in the interviews and was accepted. “I have decided that my time as a dog handler will come to an end,” she said.
Ms. Franklin, who lives in Brooklyn, began her contract work at Bank of America in June as a technology business analyst. Her starting salary is about double what she earned in recent years – less than $ 20,000.
Fostering upward mobility in American businesses is the goal of OneTen, a coalition of companies committed to hiring or promoting one million black Americans for family support jobs over the next decade.
The coalition started in December with three dozen companies and has grown to 54. These are major employers including Accenture, AT&T, American Express, Bank of America, Cisco, Cleveland Clinic, Delta Air Lines, IBM, Merck, Target , Verizon and Walmart. .
OneTen sees its role as orchestrating the different actors in the labor market, sharing best practices and measuring results. It favors hiring on the basis of skills rather than diplomas. The group also supports training programs, based on completion and placement rates. Two dozen have been approved to date.
Digital skills are increasingly an important tool across the range of occupations and career paths in business – jobs in sales, marketing, customer service and operations.
One example is Mr. Wray, who works for Better, an online mortgage lender. In the Merit America program, he obtained a certificate in technical support. But her current role at Better is really customer service, helping potential borrowers navigate online forms, communicating through live chat.
The goal of technical training at Merit America, Mr. Wray said, was “to learn enough to be able to learn on the job.”
At Better, his next career steps might be to become a loan consultant, loan processor, or, on a technical level, perhaps a network administrator.
One thing he’s learning is mortgages – how they work and the many options. “It’s fascinating,” said Mr. Wray. “And now I’m on my way to affording myself a home at some point, which I wasn’t before.”