December 5, 2023

Jobs for the Future (JFF), a nonprofit organization driving workforce and education transformation, has released a report, “Professional Social Capital: A Key to Black Economic Advancement,” in partnership with the University of Phoenix. It contains an action framework that addresses systemic barriers to education and workforce development, as well as outlines strategies for colleges and employers to support the career advancement of Black students and workers by building professional social capital.

“We saw evidence that relationships were critical to adding this missing variable to the equation of completion and economic progress,” said Michael Collins, JFF vice president and head of JFF’s Center for Racial Economic Equity. “We wanted to create a framework and support for institutions.”

Connections, networks and resources help people understand, access and navigate education systems and the labor market. The report departs from the traditional focus on completing an educational program or gaining a qualification and explores the importance and impact of professional social capital. It then examines how educational institutions and companies can support Black students and workers in acquiring this capital and achieving career advancement. Michael CollinsMichael Collins

The report found that only 5% of black employees reported having a sponsor at work, compared to 20% of their white counterparts. Also, black executives are 65% more likely to advance in their careers if they have a sponsor.

The report notes that implementing peer mentoring, paid work-based learning, building partnerships for intentional and inclusive hiring, and promoting career services and DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) as organizational priorities.

The literature review helped the researchers identify what Dr. Kimberly Underwood, chair of the Center for Research on Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Phoenix, called bright spots in postsecondary education and the workplace. She further noted that getting feedback from Black students and staff helped shape the framework.

“If we look at creating this partnership between black workers/black students and higher education and the workforce to make sure we create a smoother trajectory to these higher paying careers,” she said.

The five key practices identified focus on participants’ strengths rather than what they lack, emphasize the importance of connecting students and staff with people with whom they can build supportive relationships, help students and staff meet people, formalize career progression and enable ongoing learning. .

“The news is about disrupting some of the stories that we have,” Collins said. “We’re trying to help postsecondary institutions and employers understand that we need to educate black students and staff about the importance of developing those relationships. It may not be immediately obvious, especially for first-generation students.”

Because many black students, especially first-generation students, do not stay in higher education beyond their first year, retention efforts are critical. This includes peer-to-peer mentoring as well as alumni connections. The report also highlights the need for ongoing career guidance and the formalization of mentoring experiences. As part of this work, maintaining metrics on faculty mentoring, internships, graduate engagement, and graduate placement rates is essential.

“We need metrics to ensure that the burden of social capital is not on students,” Collins said. “It’s important to have these metrics for accountability.” Dr.  Kimberly UnderwoodDr. Kimberly Underwood

Similarly, Collins noted that black workers are less likely to remain employed than their white counterparts. The University of Phoenix’s Career Optimism Index found that only 61% of Americans say they have someone in their professional life who advocates for them.

“There’s a trajectory; there are some things that postsecondary institutions and employers need to do at the beginning of their engagement with students and staff, and things they need to do as they continue to support them, and then things they need to do when students and staff are is progressing,” Collins said.

“Mentoring programs and networks need to be formalized,” he continued. “We identify a strategy called reverse mentoring, which occurs when a younger worker mentors a more senior worker. Connecting this senior partner with someone who would not normally be in their orbit as a strategy to raise awareness. We are also swayed by evidence that more diverse teams actually perform better.

This message is widely circulated. A key point Underwood notices for the workplace is not only the cultivation of DEI, but also a sense of belonging. As the report states, resource mapping should be available throughout an individual’s employment, and information should be easily shared by supervisors. Formalized mentoring and networking programs should be in place, and employers should evaluate and benchmark progress within these initiatives.

“We want to provide strong examples of longitudinal types of examination of people who have gone through the process and actually used professional social capital in a way where it had the desired outcome … and how we model that,” Underwood said. “We think we have an opportunity to make an impact. We hope more attention is paid to professional social capital.”

Last August, Underwood and Collins participated in a podcast hosted by Dr. Jamal Watson. Listen here.

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