Education and upskilling as a lever to support DE&I in the healthcare and life science industry
The events of the past year have brought a new level of urgency to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Organizations have accelerated their DE&I initiatives and aim to create more opportunities for upward mobility for employees of all levels. Standing up Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), increasing spend in minority-owned businesses and suppliers, and partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) are just a few examples of efforts that organizations are prioritizing across the talent lifecycle to address the complex issue of DE&I. Another lever that can play a key role in the solution is the education and upskilling programs that employers offer. Many healthcare organizations already offer such programs, spending an average of $651 per employee in 2019 on formal training, according to a March report by ATD. But when reexamined and designed intentionally with frontline and working learners in mind, these programs can help create a pipeline of diverse talent.
An uphill battle: Less money and more debt
In an October 2020 Deloitte study, 96% of CEOs surveyed said that DE&I was a strategic priority for the next 12 months. Not only is this the right thing to do, but research has shown that companies that are more diverse, equitable, and inclusive are generally more successful. In a 2018 report, also by Deloitte, such companies were “2x as likely to meet or exceed financial targets, 3x as likely to be high-performing, 6x more likely to be innovative and agile, and 8x more likely to achieve better business outcomes.”
Though companies may not identify as having a diversity problem per se, they likely have an internal mobility problem when 41% of all frontline workers are non-white, but only 15% of executives are non-white, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. One way organizations are beginning to address issues of internal mobility is through employer education programs that upskill workers. Unfortunately, many existing employer-funded education programs do not adequately serve working learners in general and can even be unintentionally discriminatory.
We previously wrote about the tuition reimbursement program model, in which the cost of education is paid upfront by employees who float the cost of tuition, fees, and books. While well-intentioned, programs like this shut out workers who are not high-earners, are not able to take on more debt, or do not have savings on hand. COVID-19 has now exacerbated the situation. Sixty-three percent of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey conducted by the IT service management company Highland Solutions. Nearly half (46%) of lower-income adults have trouble paying their bills, and 32% have problems paying their rent or mortgage, according to the Pew Research Center. In December 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 140,000 jobs were lost that month, and news outlets noted that women, mostly Black and Latina, accounted for 100% of that job loss.
In addition, the average annual tuition for a part-time undergraduate student is estimated to be about $9,816, or $818 a month. (This is calculated by taking the average cost per credit hour of any four-year institution, which is $701 according to the research group EducationData.org, and multiplying it by 14, which is the average number of credits a working adult student enrolled in a Guild-partnered academic institution completes per year). This can be a steep price to pay on top of books and other supplies, as illustrated by the country’s current student debt crisis, which has been brewing long before the pandemic. In 2019, 44 million borrowers owed a total of $1.5 trillion. For Black and African American college graduates, the situation is more dire: EducationData.org reported that this population owes an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than their white counterparts. This mounting, unevenly distributed student debt, combined with the lack of expendable income, results in lower adoption and completion rates of education programs from diverse populations.
The unique position of healthcare and life sciences organizations
There are many hurdles when it comes to dismantling structural inequities within any industry and solving this issue will not happen overnight. Johnny Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management and Guild Education board member, discussed how education and upskilling programs are vital tools companies can harness to address their talent and inclusion challenges and unlock economic mobility for their workers at the same time, during a January webinar hosted by Guild.
“At the core, this means creating and expanding education and upskilling programs that target not just traditional beneficiaries,” he said, “but potential talent throughout the entire company,” including frontline and entry-level workers from all backgrounds.
The healthcare and life science industries, which address highly-complex problems in particular, will benefit from employing and nurturing diverse teams. Tackling pressing matters such as the widespread use of digital technologies and artificial intelligence, data interoperability, or the shifting of R&D endeavors to focus on real-world evidence, for example, will all require nimble teams with different perspectives and approaches.
Healthcare provider organizations are in a unique position to serve as “anchor employers” to their communities, which help elevate workers from underrepresented populations in specific ways. To be an anchor institution, the non-profit The Democracy Collaborative suggests hospitals and health systems move beyond “treating the symptomatic results of place-based racial and economic inequity and towards a realignment of all institutional resources to fight these inequities at the root by building community wealth.” That means investing in local talent pipelines, which include frontline workers from underrepresented populations, and mobilizing their careers to promote racial and economic equity in the communities which they belong.
In April 2020, for example, Humana joined Microsoft, the City of Louisville, the University of Louisville, and others for the FutureLou initiative. The program aims to train the people of Louisville, KY for jobs in the future of work, and includes credentialing in data analytics, digital marketing, software engineering, and user experience design. After one year, FutureLou reports that more than 1,500 people in the community are in the pipeline to train for and be placed in tech jobs.
Long known for its leading role in promoting STEM education and interest in biotech and biomanufacturing careers, Amgen expanded its geographical footprint to Tampa, FL with its Global Capability Center in 2017. Through the Amgen Foundation, establishing ERGs, and building partnerships with local educators and nonprofits in Tampa, Amgen has continued its diversity-promoting culture and has an impact in the communities it serves by building a pipeline of talent in high-demand STEM focus areas as early as high school.
Striving for success for employees and employers
In the end, having a diverse workforce at every level of the organization attracts top talent, boosts performance and productivity, increases retention, and leads to higher employee engagement, according to the executive search firm Fraser Dove. By removing needless discriminatory barriers, positioning oneself as an anchor institution, and offering education and development programs tailored to the working learner, companies can take an important step in making their organization an equitable place to work for all employees.
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