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Inclusive work: Marginalized populations in the workforce of the future

Impact, challenges, and opportunities for empowerment

In an industry 4.0-driven future, marginalized groups may continue to face challenges securing opportunities. Through a coalition approach, employers can help disrupt barriers to employment and access untapped talent.

This report was primarily written prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 national dialogue calling for meaningful racial justice reforms. Though these two important events are not mentioned directly, they have had widespread and disproportionate impacts on marginalized groups, and further highlight the relevance of this report. As organizations choose the path forward, it is imperative they rethink deeply held orthodoxies in order to shape a more inclusive Future of Work. Generating innovative pathways to employment for marginalized populations has never been more critically needed by so many.

Seán Morris
Principal and chief operating officer
Deloitte US Government & Public Services


The future of work

The nature of work is changing rapidly. Technological advancements—including robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI)—are shifting roles, responsibilities, and what has traditionally dictated the work of humans versus the work of machines.1 As automation becomes more prolific, machines will likely perform many predictable cognitive and physical activities, such as operating machinery, administrative tasks, or preparing food.

Collectively, the forces shaping the future of work are likely to have many positive impacts, including creating new employment opportunities,2 developing unique platforms to engage alternative workers such as freelancers or contract-based workers,3 and increasing productivity and economic growth.4 But they may also create new challenges related to the displacement of jobs and rapidly changing demand for technical and essentially human skills. Many employers are placing a higher premium on human skills such as problem-solving, empathy, and creativity in their workforce as AI and robotics transform previously manual tasks. Considering alternative hiring pathways could help organizations meet these skills and competency requirements in the future of work.

There are opportunities to access previously untapped talent to meet these evolving workforce needs. One option may be to actively engage marginalized populations who have previously been susceptible to unemployment and underemployment. Many employers and government agencies have used new business models to integrate and scale pathways to employment for individuals from marginalized backgrounds. Through these efforts, employers can realize the tangible benefits of engaging a diverse, resilient, and often untapped workforce, helping to improve outcomes for these individuals, as well as their organizations.

In 2019, Deloitte and American University’s School of International Service cohosted a symposium titled “Building an inclusive workforce of the future.” The event centered on the future of work, exploring the potential impacts on individuals who may be particularly susceptible to unemployment and underemployment—specifically, survivors of human trafficking, refugees, and formerly incarcerated persons.

Panelists, speakers, and attendees from across the public, private, and social sectors strategized potential pathways to sustainable and dignified work through the collective social enterprise. Convening service providers and other professionals working directly on this issue enabled valuable knowledge-sharing and relationship-building. The points of view shared during the event provided the impetus for this report.

Creating opportunities for marginalized populations in the future of work

Marginalized populations can encompass many individuals. For the purposes of this report, we will explore three groups who, while distinct, share common barriers to accessing social, economic, and environmental resources. These are survivors of human trafficking, refugees, and formerly incarcerated persons. These three groups represent a significant pool of untapped talent but continue to face significant obstacles to achieving sustainable employment today.

Research suggests that conscientiously creating opportunities for individuals from marginalized populations can benefit organizations in multiple ways. These may include:

  1. Enhanced performance. Diversity and inclusion have been linked to better team performance, and businesses with greater gender and racial diversity often financially outperform their peers. 5 The concept of building teams comprising individuals with different lived experiences falls into a new frontier focused on adding diversity of thought to the traditional demographic lens. 6
  2. Attracting and retaining top talent. Creating sustainable job opportunities for marginalized populations may result in higher retention rates for employers—from these hires as well as current staff.7 Additionally, a recent survey found that “millennials and Generation Zs show deeper loyalty to employers who boldly tackle the issues that resonate with them most.” 8
  3. Strengthened social license to operate. Studies show that steady, gainful employment contributes to lowering vulnerability and increasing stability. This can, in turn, create greater economic outcomes for traditionally marginalized individuals and their families, and contribute in small ways toward broader economic equality goals.9
  4. Access to federal tax credits. Employers who hire marginalized populations may benefit from federal tax credits in the form of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) which offers companies that hire from nine “target groups”—including formerly incarcerated persons, recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, and others—tax breaks of up to US$9.6 thousand per employee hired. 10

While the potential benefits are clear, many individuals from marginalized groups continue to face challenges accessing sustainable employment.

Challenges for marginalized populations in the future of work

While individuals from each of the three aforementioned groups face different challenges in gaining employment based on their unique backgrounds and characteristics, there are also certain barriers that marginalized populations may share to various extents:

  • Social stigma: One of the most significant barriers to employment for the identified populations comes through social stigma and bias. Race, gender, age, sexual orientation, physical ability, veteran status, religion, and other identities continue to be factors in accessing and fully engaging in employment.11
  • Accessibility: For individuals who lack reliable internet access or digital literacy skills, searching for and securing employment can be incredibly difficult. In an economy where more than 70% of jobs are never publicly posted, the lack of a social or professional network can also create a significant barrier to employment.12
  • Behavioral and physical health and trauma: Mental, emotional, and physical health barriers, as well as geographic restrictions, encumber marginalized populations in their efforts to seek and secure employment. Trauma-informed care and adequate support infrastructures are key to enabling individuals to succeed in and sustain employment opportunities.
  • Legal barriers: Survivors of trafficking and formerly incarcerated persons typically face significant legal barriers to employment. Formerly incarcerated persons are impacted by a wide variety of direct employment barriers and additional postrelease sanctions. Federal law does not prohibit employers from asking about and weighing criminal records when making employment decisions as long as they are not used in a discriminatory manner.13 For example, some social benefits may take months to reinstate after leaving incarceration.14
  • Financial constraints: Without stable financial resources, marginalized populations often find it challenging to obtain professional attire, find transportation to job interviews, or understand the process to identify a position that appropriately matches their experience and expectations. Resource constraints also make it difficult for survivors of trafficking, refugees, and formerly incarcerated persons to invest in upskilling, occupational certifications, or the educational credentials required to match the demands of employers.15
  • Misaligned qualifications and education: Gaps in employment and insufficient or misaligned qualifications (educational or work-based) play a critical role in limiting employment prospects for all three marginalized groups. Alternatively, certain credentials are not internationally recognized. In the United States, refugees may be required to retake certification examinations in nonnative languages, recomplete academic coursework, or convince employers of the validity of their credentials.16

Facing one or often many of the barriers identified above, individuals trying to navigate an ecosystem of employers, service providers, and training programs are often left in precarious or vulnerable situations. Employers, similarly, may be unsure how to access talent and train employees outside of traditional mechanisms.

Being part of the solution: A coalition approach

Many social enterprises and initiatives have demonstrated the opportunities that exist by engaging the untapped talent within traditionally marginalized groups, such as the populations identified here. However, achieving and sustaining employment is often tied to other needs, including housing, mental health, and addressing the barriers outlined above.17 Employers, themselves, may not be positioned to address the full spectrum of needs identified. By building coalitions with organizations and service providers who address mental health, housing, and other needs, employers will be better able to actively engage an untapped talent pipeline while disrupting traditional barriers to employment.18

This solution involves an ecosystem of three stakeholder groups and offers an assisted pathway from service provision (e.g., skills development, training, care) to potential employment. The conditions below are all necessary for an effective coalition approach, but can be completed by one or more stakeholders within the ecosystem. They are:

  1. Employment opportunities with employers engaged and committed to bolstering their talent pipeline and working in collaboration with individuals and organizations in the field.
  2. Skills development and training programs that meet the specific hiring needs of employers and have coordinated on the basic needs support necessary during the training period.
  3. Provision of basic needs, generally, by direct service providers who coordinate key stability factors such as housing, nutrition assistance, transportation, and mental health services.

Rather than three stakeholder groups working in isolation, a coalition model proposes that these three key conditions can be met through ongoing partnerships or other innovative business models, that can help to form a mutually beneficial pipeline.

While employers cannot singlehandedly address the challenges and barriers facing individuals who have been marginalized in the labor market, they are a key stakeholder in helping find solutions. To collaborate effectively with other organizations, employers should examine legacy employment processes and qualifications that could be maintaining barriers and identify ways to create an organizational culture where diversity of background, experience, and thought is not only sought and welcomed, but acknowledged as a driver of strategic advantage. As the future of work becomes more and more an everyday reality, organizations have an opportunity to reframe how they source, attract, hire, and retain diverse talent.

For marginalized populations, the future of work provides opportunities to further self-confidence, self-sufficiency, and economic empowerment, which are integral to building resilience and reducing the risk of future exploitation. For employers, the future of work can provide opportunities to tap into new, diverse labor markets teeming with potential. A comprehensive pathway to employment that considers the unique need of each stakeholder in this process could turn this coalition approach to the future of work into a reality, helping to create value for employers and contributing directly to the ability of individuals from marginalized groups to realize their full potential in the workforce.

Anti-human trafficking

Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Anti–Human Trafficking Team advises businesses and governments to incorporate social responsibility into their core strategies and operations, identify and remove human trafficking in their supply chains, and create employee and customer retention through improved societal impact.

Learn more

The authors would like to thank Sandra Brooks, Azadeh Meshkaty, Alan Holden, and Amy Rahe for their significant contributions and insights, and Caitlin Ryan, Nicole Veit, and Parker Jones for their contributions to research and development of this report. The authors would also like to thank Seán Morris for his constant championship of this and numerous other efforts related to anti-human trafficking and inclusion. Additionally, the authors would like to acknowledge the role of American University’s School of International Service in co-hosting the event, “Building an inclusive workforce of the future” in March 2019, which served as the genesis of this report.

This effort would not have been possible without participation from organizations working on this issue daily. We would like to thank those featured in this report for their invaluable time and effort; these organizations include AnnieCannons, The Last Mile, Talent Beyond Boundaries, Prison  Entrepreneurship Program, Foodhini, International Sanctuary, and National Domestic Workers Alliance. The authors are very grateful to all those who have supported this work since its initial inception.

Cover image by: Kevin Weier

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