COVID-19 is a great equalizer in the sense that it does not discriminate who it can and will infect. In some ways, the pandemic has united Americans behind the idea that it takes a collective effort to avoid infection by masking, social distancing and making daily sacrifices. At the same time, the pandemic has laid bare some of the inequalities that have long persisted in American society, including inequities in the workforce.

For health and safety reasons due to the pandemic, much of the workforce has moved to a remote setting, cutting the risk of contracting the virus in half, according to the CDC. This was a welcome option for employers and employees seeking to keep themselves and their families safe while continuing to work and maintain somewhat regular schedules. Major companies in Indiana like Eli Lilly, Salesforce and Cummins adopted flexible “work from home” policies in response to the pandemic, setting a precedent for other employers to follow.

However, workers with jobs that require in-person duties – food service, retail, trades – are more likely to be low-income, non-white, an immigrant, or lack a post-secondary credential. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of college-educated workers say they could work from home, but only 4% with less than a high school diploma said the same thing. When it comes to the virus, minorities and those with less education often have to make the difficult decision: avoid infection or safeguard their jobs.

The pandemic has also exposed a digital divide nationwide and here at home: 666,000 people in Indiana who live without access to a wired connection capable of 25mbps download speeds. Furthermore, the digital divide impacts rural, low-income and communities of color far greater than their counterparts. According to a Pew Research Center study, Black and Latinx families with school-aged children are more than twice as likely to lack internet access as white families. The digital divide hinders access to basic needs and is a barrier to Hoosiers seeking to fulfill their potential and to the growth of the state’s future workforce.

While unemployment in Indiana has steadily decreased in recent months, more and more people are leaving the workforce as well. With the winter months ahead and the slow roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine, the state’s economic outlook is very uncertain. One of the major underlying issues that is sure to remain, however, is that significant barriers exist to many Hoosiers who may want or need to retool and upskill to maintain or advance their career and increase their resiliency in the face of current and future economic crises.

While there will always be a need for in-person jobs, anyone who has the desire to further their education should have the opportunity to do so. Increasing access to education for Hoosiers is a key solution to addressing the workforce inequities and economic disparities that have been highlighted by the pandemic.

I understand that this solution calls a few things into consideration, namely the time, cost and technology needed for continuing education. For those who have felt the economic burden brought on by the pandemic and for communities of color who also face systemic racial barriers to career opportunities, pursuing a higher ed degree may not seem like a realistic option.

As a veteran who has dedicated both my higher education career and personal time to addressing socio-economic and racial disparities, I hear these concerns. But solutions do exist. One of those solutions is flexible, affordable, online degree programs like those provided by WGU Indiana, whose mission is to reach those who want to expand their career opportunities, but are not well-served by a traditional in-person, classroom-based education experience. The online university’s affordable, flexible, competency-based model allows students to work at their own pace without sacrificing other obligations such as work, home or caregiving responsibilities.

Especially during these difficult times, WGU is committed to easing financial burdens and strengthening Indiana’s workforce by offering scholarship opportunities, such as the Online Access Scholarship for those in need of technology and internet support and a resiliency grant that can be used for tuition, fees and instructional materials for those battling unforeseen financial challenges. WGU was designed to deliver outstanding student outcomes and will continue to do so by meeting today’s workforce needs and assisting current and future students where they are.

Hoosiers have been forced to reckon with multiple crises this past year, including the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism, which are inextricably linked. I firmly believe that we are at a crossroads and now is the time to prioritize access to education and workforce development opportunities in Indiana. By providing opportunities for Hoosiers to upgrade their skills and earn a degree or industry-recognized credential, our workforce becomes more equitable and our economy stronger and more resilient.

K.L. Allen serves as Regional Director of Western Governors University.

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