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Employers as new territory, new opportunities

Employer Roundtables, 2019

Irvine is doing things differently since shifting our focus in 2016. We have a singular goal – a California where all workers have the power to advance economically – and are engaging directly with partners beyond our grantees, including employers.

This may surprise some, and, frankly, it’s new territory for Irvine. But we believe it’s necessary to expand opportunity in our state. The California Dream has been a reality for my family and me. This state afforded my mom and my dad the opportunity and education to catapult our family into the middle class in the 1960s and ‘70s.

And, as a Black woman and the daughter of an immigrant, I am dismayed that the dream is withering for millions of Californians. This is especially true for working people of color and immigrants who have powered California’s booming economy yet are more likely to be excluded from good pay and advancement opportunities.

California accounts for 15% of the entire nation’s job growth, but when we factor in the cost of housing and other expenses, we have the highest poverty rate of all the states. Nearly half of working Californians struggle with poverty, and four out of 10 must make extreme trade-offs like putting off seeing a doctor or cutting back on food.

Meanwhile, 1.4 million middle-wage jobs in California go unfilled, with employers struggling to find workers with the skills needed in our evolving economy. This is a clear call to action for anyone who cares about California’s future – and why we’re encouraged by employers who acknowledge the challenges and are working to change things.

Public and private employers create – and dictate the quality of – approximately 5 million entry-level jobs in California. Employers primarily dictate whether the jobs they offer entry-level workers afford them dignity and opportunities to equitably advance into those with higher wages and pathways to a career.

That’s why we followed listening efforts with workers, regional leaders, and grantees with six roundtables to hear from 73 California employers. It’s part of our strategy to engage various partners – philanthropy, nonprofits, policymakers, labor unions, and employers – committed to investing in low-wage workers in California.

Helping employers take their approaches to scale and promoting them to peers could benefit tens of thousands of California workers seeking new skills and higher wages. We want to increase employer motivation, provide support to change practice, and lift up exemplars and examples that work.

Employers as partners across our work

Direct engagement with employers is new for Irvine, but employers as partners and stakeholders are not new in the work we support:

  • Better Careers is our multiyear, $110 million initiative to support organizations that connect low-income Californians to good jobs with family-sustaining wages and advancement opportunities, including grantees who partner with employers shifting how they hire, train, and advance workers.
  • Fair Work is our multiyear, $90 million initiative to support grantees and partners engaging low-wage workers to advocate for their rights and fight wage theft. Irvine grantees engage employers to hold up exemplars of fair practices and challenge those who illegally withhold wages.
  • Priority Regions reflects our commitment to investing in under-resourced cities in inland California. Grantees and partners promote civic engagement and economic planning within low-income communities to foster equitable local economies that work for everyone. Employers must be at the table for this to work.

For our newer efforts with employers, we seek to partner with those who are developing innovative approaches to recruiting, hiring, retaining, and advancing low-wage workers. We are particularly focused on employers committed to equity and inclusion since approaches paying attention to race/ethnicity, gender, immigration status, and other dimensions of identity are critical to economic advancement for all.

We know some employers have mixed or even negative reputations, and we will not work with everyone (including anyone who behaves illegally, unethically, or supports social policies counter to our values). But there are often innovative leaders within various industries and employers who have approaches that, if taken to scale, can positively impact low-income workers.

What we heard at the roundtables

That’s why we started by listening to employers – following listening we’ve done with workers, grantees, and others – who see a win-win in advancing entry-level workers and growing their business.

Employer Roundtables, 2019

In the summer of 2019, we partnered with regional leaders and organizations to host six employer roundtables across the state. These events engaged 87 individuals from 73 employers about the challenges and opportunities they see in hiring, retaining, and advancing entry-level and front-line workers, including issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. (Attendees were not meant to be representative of all employers but do represent different regions, industries, sizes, and perspectives.)

The roundtable participants understood that there are ways to benefit workers, businesses, and the community – and they have an opportunity to lead. We heard opportunities: participants repeatedly mentioned that investing in workers can help businesses stay competitive, with employers sharing tangible examples of hiring and supporting entry-level workers with diverse backgrounds.

We also heard challenges: Employers need more leaders to champion these initiatives and see entry-level workers’ assets. And, in a multicultural state like California, we must move beyond just hiring diverse workers toward building cultures of equity and inclusion that provide equal advancement opportunities for overlooked workers.

We want to hear from other employers

Significant work remains, but we left the roundtables optimistic. Leading employers committed to advancing entry-level workers can be powerful partners in our collective efforts to empower workers, communities, and restore the California Dream for all.

Please read more about what we heard – and see as opportunities – in the following pages. And we look forward to hearing your own experience as an employer: