Op-Ed: Creating a More Diverse Footwear Industry Starts in Middle-School Classrooms

As part of our new Op-Ed series, we ask key thought leaders in footwear and fashion to contribute editorial content. Pensole founder D’Wayne Edwards will contribute regular pieces about diversity and inclusion.

The topic of diversity is a hot one in our industry. Major and local media outlets are capitalizing on the opportunity to selectively decide which company they want to exploit to attract more advertisers or just bully their way through society.

I asked FN if I could write this column to answer the question: Why does the footwear industry have a diversity problem? (Other industries do as well.) For the record, when I say diversity, I am specifically talking about African Americans.

It is not because companies are racist. It is not because there is a line of African Americans stretched around the corner, all qualified applicants, and companies are saying, “No, we good.”

In fact, footwear players have gone on record internally and externally saying that they welcome the opportunity to create a more diverse workforce. But the reason why the footwear industry has a diversity problem is because there are very few qualified African Americans to choose from.

Now you will say, “D’Wayne, c’mon, man. Don’t give me that.” But before you try to take my black card, digest this:

In a large percentage of inner-city middle and high schools nationwide, art no longer exists.

Less than 10% of students who are enrolled in art and design colleges and universities nationwide are African American, according to educators at those institutions. About 40% of these students drop-out. If 40% of the total African American art and design students drop out, that leaves around 6% to graduate nationwide.

Half of that 6% are art students. That means around 3% of design students who graduate every year nationwide are African American.

Half of that 3% do not graduate with the skills needed to qualify for a job nationwide. That leaves roughly 1.5% annually—nationwide—who are qualified to be employed.

This why the footwear industry has a diversity problem!

Do I blame the companies for this problem? No.

Does it make any sense to you why companies wait for qualified African Americans to show up for jobs? I hope not. Companies who target African Americans as consumers should do their part to provide these same consumers with more [career] opportunities.

The solution to this problem is simple: If you want to hire more qualified African Americans as badly as you want to make your company money, this change will happen. Until then it won’t.

If you do, then you must increase these numbers by investing in the pipeline where this went wrong — in middle school and high school [classrooms]. This may take up to 10 years to effect a change. If you want to see an increase in qualified African American talent, you must create the future you want to see.

To expand on that thought: Our industry has a one-sided relationship with its consumers. In addition to trying to sell them as consumers, we should also try to sell them on being future employees by sharing career opportunities in our industry.

The footwear business also needs its leadership to unite so we can celebrate all of the great careers we have — either through a central website or nationwide career days in middle and high schools, hosted by companies in each state.

Our industry should consider creating industry-wide job-shadow programs at companies for employees to be engaged regularly in middle schools and high schools. These job shadows could be elective classes for students for which they get credit. Or maybe they could be after-school programs and the company employees could track their hours to put toward PTO (paid time off) later.

Collectively, we might want to establish a summer apprentice program for college freshman that aligns their major with a career. Companies can work with these students through all four years of college with the goal of establishing a pipeline and making better-educated hiring decisions.

We can also partner with local colleges to create co-op programs so students can work at companies during the school year to receive college credit and valuable career insights, and in turn they will inject new ideas into an industry that lacks diverse thinkers.

If we are just as serious about making money as hiring a more diverse workforce, it will happen. If not, we either need to stop waiting for things to change and do something about it — or stop talking about it!

I started Pensole to leave this industry better than when I entered it back in 1989. If you are serious about changing it, too, and want to me help, I can be reached at dwayne@pensole.com.

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