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The role of employers in creating shared prosperity

Is the American Dream out of reach for most Californians? How can business restore the state’s middle class? How do we create shared prosperity?

Those questions were the focus of an event last week that The James Irvine Foundation supported, the second event in a three-part series with the Commonwealth Club. Irvine is supporting the series because of our big-picture goal: a California where all low-wage workers have the power to advance economically.

We believe we can reach our goal more quickly by partnering with employers to deepen and lead efforts that create career opportunities for low-wage workers – and that employers directly benefit when doing so.

The discussion was moderated by Lenny Mendonca, Governor Newsom’s Chief Economic and Business Advisor and the Director of the Office of Business and Economic Development. Panelists included representatives from AT&T, the Autodesk Foundation, the Public Policy Institute of California, and Recology. You can watch the video here.

Panelists shared examples of investing deeply in worker training; prioritizing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in hiring; and the need to make work about lifelong learning, considering the rapid changes affecting all work now. The reason for business to care and invest in low-wage workers was succinctly stated by one panelist: “Businesses need a thriving middle class to succeed as a business. What are the investments we can make as a company to create economic prosperity for all to ensure we have customers in the future?”

Mr. Mendonca concurred and added a second reason that goes beyond self-interest: that we are human beings, and there is reason to care about future generations.

Our approach: partnering directly with California employers

At Irvine, we could not agree more that employers play a critical role in creating a California that supports all workers to thrive. We are excited to see employers recognizing that strategic investments in entry-level and front-line workers can create business growth and advance individuals economically.

We intend to partner more directly with employers beginning in 2019. We will:

  • Explore, with employers, how to improve recruitment, hiring, and advancement practices for entry-level and front-line workers in ways that grow their business
  • Collect data and research about promising practices, particularly elevating employers to share their experiences with each other in peer-to-peer conversations
  • Bring employers together – employers who reflect the diversity of our regions, industries, and people – to envision a new compact between business and workers, and to advocate and expand practices that advance low-wage workers

Values driving our collaboration

Underpinning Irvine’s work, including with employers, are some core beliefs and values:

  • Californians should be able to support their families with a full-time job without sacrificing their dignity. This is about pay but also about scheduling, advancement opportunities, belonging, and respect. As one panelist stated, “We have to reinvent family and take care of our family, friends, and neighbors.”
  • We believe racial equity is critical, and we will prioritize employers who think the same. Racial segregation and discriminatory actions and policies, intentional or not, have created disparities in employment and workforce development opportunities. As a result, racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in higher-paying jobs in almost every industry – and over-represented in unemployed and underemployed populations.
  • We believe in listening to those with direct experience. In our work with employers we want to hear their needs and opportunities, and we will prioritize employers who, in turn, listen to their workers.

According to Mr. Mendonca, “If we can’t fix this [economic disparity] issue in California, shame on us. Can the California American dream be real like it has in the past? Of course, it can.”

We are inspired by employers we already see improving opportunities for low-wage workers – and who are articulating the need for an inclusive economy. It will take all of us, including business leaders, to set a new expectation for shared prosperity of all Californians.

We are new to this journey of engaging directly with employers and look forward to learning alongside you. Contact us if you are a likeminded employer, funder, policymaker, or organization working directly to accelerate business change for shared prosperity in California.

Photos courtesy of Ed Ritger