Affirmative action in college admissions has been a mainstay in most states with the noble intent to level the playing field for marginalized students and recognize the significance of race in providing equal opportunity.
The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to end affirmative action admissions by colleges and universities will have far reaching affects, with impacts on businesses who recognize that diversity within their workforce is imperative, and on the workforce facing greater obstacles to getting the education and training needed to meet the skill requirements of employers.
The Supreme Court ruling disrupts the fifty years of progress made that provided more people with accessibility and opportunity to participate fully in American economic and civic life. The Court supplants its judgment over that of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country, as well as 82 corporations and business groups who signed three amicus briefs to the court, including Google, Salesforce, Microsoft, Verizon, Starbucks, and American Express.
The amicus brief filed by International Business Machines Corp. (IBM) and Aeris Communications, Inc. (Aeris) along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University “underscore[s] the importance of diversity not just within higher education or the corporate world at large, but in the particular cross-section of academia and industry within the intensely collaborative, and increasingly global, STEM industries.” As IBM, Aeris, MIT, and Stanford explain, “Not only does diversity promote better outcomes for students in STEM, it contributes to better science. As such, American businesses at the forefront of innovation in STEM depend on the availability of a diverse cross-section of talented graduates from the nation’s most rigorous and elite institutions.”
Demographic changes demand that employers attract diverse employees and ensure that these diverse employees have the skills needed in the workplace. Brookings’s Joseph Kane says, “The overall labor force will grow from 161 million workers to 169 million (an additional 4.8%) over the next decade, largely driven by women and people of color. From 2021 to 2031, the number of women in the U.S. labor force will increase by 6.1%, while the number of men will only increase 3.5%. At the same time, the number of Black and Latino or Hispanic workers will increase 8.2% and 23.6%, respectively, while the number of white workers will only increase 1.6%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separately report other racial groups—including Asian American and Native American workers—but groups in the “all other” category will grow the fastest (24.1%).”
These statistics show that the workforce will be increasingly diverse. America’s economic future depends on that workforce being educated and skilled. Without affirmative action, the pipeline to educate diverse students will be reduced as has been proven in states like California that don’t have affirmative action in admissions. In California, which stopped affirmative action after the passage of Prop 209 in 1996, other methods to improve diversity have not been able to match the positive results of affirmative action, especially in the more selective campuses of University of California. California’s diversity is not reflected in the student bodies of our public higher education institutions, and this means our changing demographics will exacerbate this situation. This ruling also means that the private universities in California must also end race-conscious admissions which will further limit diversity on those campuses and ultimately, in our workforce.
Given that the workforce will be more diverse, employers need to redouble efforts to build a stronger long-term talent pipeline, which crucially depends on reaching and supporting more diverse workers. It is expected that groups opposing affirmative action will now be focusing on employers’ hiring and promotion practices. However, it is important that employers maintain their commitment to their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs as companies that are more diverse will do better at attracting more diverse employees in the competition for talent.
To make their DEI programs less of a target for litigation, employers should remove quota systems for hiring and instead improve their recruiting practices to cast a wider net of potential employees. This can include recruiting from higher education institutions that serve more diverse student bodies, offering apprenticeships and more collaboration with their local universities and colleges.
And all of us can do more to support local college and career readiness programs, universal preschool, greater funding of educational institutions, mentoring programs, internships and other mechanisms to help level the playing field before a student gets to college. Let’s make the disappointment in the Court’s decision a driver for us to do more to ensure that students get the education they need so our economic and civic lives prosper.
North Bay Leadership Council is an employer-led public policy advocacy organization committed to providing leadership in ways to make the North Bay sustainable, prosperous and innovative. As business and civic leaders, our goal is to ensure economic health by building more housing, improving mobility, promoting better education, and creating jobs to make our region a better place to live and work. Collectively, our members have over 25,000 employees.
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