While the COVID-19 virus itself doesn’t discriminate against who it can and will infect, its wide-ranging effects have laid bare and heightened many of the inequalities that have long persisted in our society, including in the workforce. Compounded with systemic racial barriers and an uncertain future economic outlook, significant obstacles stand in the way of many Hoosiers who seek to maintain or advance their careers.
For health and safety reasons due to the pandemic, much of the workforce moved to a remote setting, cutting the risk of contracting the virus in half, according to the CDC. This option was embraced by employers, including major companies in Indiana such as Eli Lilly and Co., Salesforce and Cummins Inc., who sought to keep employees and their families safe in the face of the public health emergency.
However, workers with jobs that require in-person duties—many of which are essential to the Indianapolis community in their own right—are more likely to be low-income, non-white, an immigrant, or lack a post-secondary credential. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of college-educated workers say they could work from home, but only 4% with less than a high school diploma said the same thing. Minorities and those with less education have been forced to choose between their safety and job security.
Furthermore, 666,000 people in Indiana live without access to a proper internet connection, and Black and Latinx families with school-aged children are more than twice as likely to lack internet access as white families. The pandemic has exacerbated this digital divide when so many of our basic needs have migrated online. The divide also hinders access to education and the growth potential of the state’s future workforce.
Increasing access to education for Hoosiers is a key solution to addressing the workforce inequities and economic disparities that have been heightened by the pandemic. And despite the time, cost and technology necessary to further your education, affordable, online degree programs, like those provided by WGU Indiana, do exist and are specifically geared toward those who want to expand their career opportunities but are not well-served by a traditional in-person, campus-based experience.
As a veteran who has dedicated both my higher education career and personal time to addressing socio-economic and racial disparities, I firmly believe that now is the time to recognize that the pandemic and systemic racism, both here in Indiana and across the nation, are inextricably linked. Prioritizing access to education and workforce development opportunities is one important and necessary step in the right direction toward a more equitable workforce and a stronger, more resilient economy.•
Allen is regional director of operations for Western Governors University and has more than a deacde of experience in higher education. His WGU region includes Indiana.