Greg Bell: This social justice movement must lead to equal opportunity

In this George Floyd moment, much of the legitimate demand for racial equity and justice centers on economics. Yes, there is important work to be done in policing, sentencing and incarceration, education, and integration into the whole of the American dream. But an indispensable ingredient in equality is economic opportunity, the ability to get a good job or the chance to start a business.

A good job is foundational to personal and family success. My wife and I recently watched a granddaughter and grandson graduate from college, nervously search out employment, get hired and move into meaningful employment. How exciting it’s been for us and for them to join the world of work, put their skills to use and earn a salary that sustains their family. We want all Utah kids likewise to qualify for a good job and enjoy the many fruits of satisfying employment.

So why don’t Black and Hispanic kids just go after good jobs? Some do because they can. But many lack the opportunity to become prepared for such jobs.

First, minorities are vastly more likely to live in poverty than whites. Children in poverty are far more likely to live with a single mother, who in some cases can’t or doesn’t impart the language skills, reading readiness and life skills parents in a more affluent two-parent home more readily can pass on to their children. These kids often have no place to study and often lack internet access and a computer; they often have no one to help them with homework or communicate with their teachers. They get disciplined in school more often and more severely. They may have no one in their family who went to college, who works in a white-collar job and who will encourage them to dream big and help them prepare for college.

Second, minority job-seekers are less likely to have the kind of social capital that opens doors for them, with fewer mentors and contacts who can boost them on their way.

Third, far too few minorities graduate from high school, go to college and graduate, and participate in STEM degrees, business, accounting and other programs that make them immediately employable.

Fourth, it’s like the old aphorism about trees: When is the best time to plant a tree? Ten years ago. It’s the same with kids. You can’t start in high school to prepare underprivileged kids for college. It’s not only that reading proficiency and math skills are required. It’s also the expectation, introduced early, that college and a good job are possible. Preparing kids in poverty for good jobs starts in pre-K where they can begin to learn the discipline, social and life skills, and reading readiness they otherwise would miss out on.

Utah will elect a new governor in November, who must elevate racial justice and equity to a priority of the new administration. One concrete way to do that is to bring together the vast resources of state government and our workforce-starved industries to train, recruit and promote qualified candidates from underserved communities. Public and higher education, including our technical education colleges, are creating education-to-employment pathways, but must do more for kids of color to prepare for good jobs with a degree or technical certificate.

Yes, we want minorities in our C-suites, in our operating rooms as doctors and nurses, in our courtrooms as lawyers and judges. But we also want hundreds and thousands of Hispanic, Native American, Black and Pacific Islander college and technical graduates to be hired in entry level managerial and professional jobs that pay a good wage and then for them to progress up the ladder. And we want minority-owned businesses to flourish.

Utah’s biggest constraint on further economic growth pre-COVID-19 was an acute shortage of qualified workforce. Our next governor must find ways to bring Utahns on public assistance or in low-paying, unskilled jobs into the skilled workforce, whether in white-collar and professional jobs or skilled trades and manufacturing positions. Companies were begging for good workers at all levels before the pandemic, and they soon will be again.

Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.

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