How One DEI Initiative Changed Course With the Times

Three years ago, dozens of big companies formed a coalition and declared an ambitious goal: to lift one million Black workers into good-paying jobs over the next 10 years, by hiring or promoting them.

The resulting nonprofit, OneTen, was created amid a crescendo of calls to address racial injustice after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. It asked its members — including AT&T, Bank of America, Cisco, Delta Air Lines, Dow, General Motors, Nike and Walmart — to pledge to hire and promote Black workers based on skills instead of college degrees.

Fast-forward, and the social climate has since changed drastically. Pushing Black-only hiring programs has grown increasingly controversial, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year against race-based affirmative action policies at universities.

OneTen, which has fallen far behind the pace needed to reach its initial goal, is at the forefront of a movement to adopt diversity, equity and inclusion methods in business. And it has been forced to change with the times.

The organization has modified its messaging in the past year, especially since the Supreme Court decision, to emphasize that the policies it advocates will help “Black talent and others.”

More concretely, the organization’s leaders realized that asking companies to vow to make changes was not enough. OneTen has helped its members rewrite job descriptions for hundreds of roles to remove unnecessary degree requirements and clearly state the skills sought and needed. The organization has helped to design apprenticeship programs for enterprises like Delta and the Cleveland Clinic, tailored for different fields. And it has set up a network for human resources and hiring managers to share their challenges and suggest solutions, in virtual and in-person sessions.

OneTen also works to establish links among employers, training programs and workers.

“The beginning has been tough — we’ve learned lessons,” said Kenneth Frazier, a founder and chairman of OneTen and former chief executive of Merck. “But we still have aspirations to make a big difference.”

Many companies are rethinking their diversity efforts after the Supreme Court’s ruling, and states including Florida and Texas passed laws to curtail D.E.I. policies. Lawsuits have been filed threatening businesses like a fund in Atlanta focused on backing Black female entrepreneurs.

Recent research suggests a pullback from practices such as requiring diverse candidate pools when interviewing to fill jobs. And the resignation of Claudine Gay, a Black woman, as president of Harvard has been celebrated by opponents of D.E.I. initiatives in academia and business who claimed she was a diversity hire.

Pfizer and two law firms, Morrison Foerster and Perkins Coie, opened their diversity fellowships last year to students of all races, after lawsuits against them alleged racial discrimination.

“There is diversity fatigue,” said Debbie Dyson, chief executive of OneTen. “What we’re doing can’t be ‘This is a diversity thing.’ Skills give you an alternative path.”

OneTen, whose founders include prominent Black business leaders like Mr. Frazier and Kenneth Chenault, former chief executive of American Express, promoted skills-based hiring from the start. More than 60 percent of all American workers do not have four-year college degrees, according to the Census Bureau. But requiring degrees in job applications hits minorities particularly hard, eliminating 72 percent of Black adults, for example.

Adopting skills-based practices, work force experts say, can help companies tap a broader pool of high-performing, dedicated workers, while increasing career opportunities and household incomes for millions of Americans. One study estimated that up to 30 million workers without four-year college degrees have most of the skills to succeed in better jobs paying 70 percent more.

OneTen began with a “superaggressive” goal and a diversity message, said Plinio Ayala, chief executive of Per Scholas, a nonprofit job-training program. The shift toward emphasizing skills, he said, “makes a lot more sense and is gaining traction.”

OneTen’s collaboration with Delta is a case study in the organization’s revised approach.

Following the OneTen playbook, the airline has removed the four-year-degree requirement from 94 percent of its job listings, including for pilot roles. Previously, about half the jobs at Delta required a college degree.

The company initially heard internal criticism that OneTen was only for Black workers. But like OneTen itself, Delta moved to emphasize that skills-based hiring and promotion can benefit all workers.

“What has been very helpful is equity for all, and we’re really leaning into that equity-for-all message,” said Joanne Smith, chief people officer at Delta.

OneTen has also helped the airline create an apprenticeship program designed to move hourly workers into salaried positions with career tracks that typically pay wages of at least $60,000 a year.

The one-year apprenticeships involve classroom and on-the-job training, mentoring and support services. Graduates are guaranteed jobs. The program, which began as an experiment with six workers in 2021, had grown last year to a group of 56, who were selected from 7,000 applicants.

Sanassa Diane was part of that group. She started at Delta in 2018 in a call center. “When you called the 1-800 number, I was the person on the other end of the call,” she said.

Ms. Diane, 28, rose up the call center hierarchy to become a customer support representative for an invitation-only service mainly for Delta’s most lucrative frequent fliers, although she was still paid hourly.

A little over a year ago, Ms. Diane entered the apprenticeship program, gaining a salaried job in the corporate sales department arranging contracts and deals for Delta’s business-customer accounts. Her pay rose more than 50 percent.

At first, the transition was daunting, she recalled, and she had “impostor syndrome,” the sense of not belonging in a work setting. Delta arranged for an outside workplace coaching firm to help her manage the anxiety.

“Stepping into the corporate world can be challenging or scary, if you’re not used to it,” she said.

Ms. Diane, who dropped out of college, is taking courses toward a bachelor’s degree in technology and management, and plans to work her way up the corporate ladder at Delta.

Despite Delta’s embrace of skills-based hiring, the approach has yet to take off more broadly. In a OneTen survey last year of 500 hiring managers, 56 percent said removing four-year degree requirements would improve their hiring practices, but only 31 percent are doing it.

Those numbers point to the gap between recognizing an issue and altering corporate behavior, said Ginni Rometty, chairwoman of OneTen and former chief executive of IBM. “That requires culture change,” she said. “And it does take time.”

Having refined its approach, OneTen is making progress, but it’s still far behind the million-jobs-in-a-decade pace embedded in its name. So far, the coalition of companies has elevated 108,000 people who meet the OneTen definition — Black workers without four-year college degrees hired or promoted into jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, as measured by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living-wage calculator.

In 30 percent of its allotted time, OneTen is about 10 percent of the way to its goal, even though its roster of member employers has nearly doubled to 65 companies.

Mr. Chenault, the former American Express chief, is now a managing director of General Catalyst, a venture capital firm. He compares OneTen to “a start-up that’s in Year 3.” It started with one focus, then saw a bigger opportunity and made a pivot.

“Yes, we’re focused on African Americans, but there is this broader opportunity,” he said. “If a company is going to skills-first practices, they are going to do it for everyone.”

OneTen’s expansion plans include working with community colleges as sources of talent and military bases as large civilian employers. But already, OneTen estimates that the income gains for the more than 100,000 Black workers its coalition partners have hired or promoted add up to $12 billion.

Demographic trends could also help persuade employers to change. America’s working-age population is aging, shrinking and becoming more diverse. Millions of jobs are unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers.

“There is a fundamental business reason for companies to convert to a skills-based hiring system, beyond all the social justice themes that got us off the ground,” said Mr. Frazier, the chairman of OneTen.

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