It’s called the “bachelor barrier” — the undergraduate degree requirement that many African American and other people of color don’t meet, which keeps them from a promotion or a new job.

Now, there’s a new initiative in town, dubbed OneTen, with a mission to close that opportunity gap and create family-sustaining careers for Philadelphia’s Black talent, especially those without college degrees.

Instead of a bachelor’s degree credential, OneTen enlists companies to hire based on skills and aptitude. Merck’s former CEO Kenneth Frazier is spearheading the OneTen organization, which he calls “a coalition of leaders” at nearly 70 companies, including IBM, JPMorganChase & Co., United Airlines, Berkshire Hathaway, GM and Airbnb, that together pledge to hire a million Black workers over the next 10 years. Hence the name: OneTen.

In 2021, the nonprofit helped nearly 25,000 African Americans get hired or promoted into family sustaining wages across the country, according to its Year One Progress report.

In the Philly market, Sulaiman Rahman, founder and CEO of DiverseForce, will act as lead recruiter for the initiative. He opened the co-working space P4 Hub at 4537 Wayne Ave., Germantown, where the OneTen kickoff event was held last month.

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The Philadelphia launch was OneTen’s first in-person event, following virtual town-hall meetings in Dallas-Fort Worth and Raleigh-Durham earlier this year. Atlanta is to be the next city.

The bachelor barrier needs to be dismantled, OneTen says.

College degrees are mostly a requirement for the bulk of family-sustaining job openings, and yet hiring managers complain that they have trouble filling vacancies. Many jobs could be “re-credentialed” to eliminate the bachelor’s degree requirement, said OneTen and other advocacy groups, and result in higher wages would then boost more Americans into the middle class.

“There’s a lot of talent spread across this country, and talent is evenly distributed. But opportunity is not,” Frazier said. “What’s missing in workforce development is an ecosystem that brings all the players together like OneTen,” he added. Frazier retired from Merck in 2021 after 10 years as CEO and has long been admired as one of America’s top corporate executives.

Frazier, a native of North Philadelphia, is an alum of Penn State and Harvard Law School. He aims to help end inequality in America and especially in large metro regions such as Philadelphia, the poorest major city in the nation. For Philadelphians 25 and older, 46.5% of non-Hispanic whites have a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education, while just 18.6% of Black residents have a bachelor’s or higher. That’s according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year estimate through 2020. That’s a larger divide than the national data, in which 36.5% of non-Hispanic whites have bachelor’s degrees, and Blacks, 22.6%.

“What we want is for people to get hired in family-sustaining careers, not minimum wages,” he said. A family-sustaining salary is about $65,000 in this region, according to the MIT Living Wage calculator measure for a family of two adults with one child.

Current and former CEOs such as IBM’s Ginny Rometty, Infor’s Charles Phillips and Amgen’s Kevin Sherer have championed broader hiring practices for years, he added. Rometty is co-chair and Phillips and Sherer are board members of OneTen.

Rather than a jobs board, however, OneTen is more a pledge by Corporate America to open its ranks.

“A lot of companies were working on it. But the point is to do it at scale,” Frazier said. “The 10-year pledge forces us to scale up.”

To that end, OneTen has enlisted Johnson & Johnson, Comcast, FMC, Cisco, Eli Lilly, and other Philadelphia-based employers and global companies to take the hiring-promotion pledge. OneTen also advocates for hiring based on alternatives such as military service, certificates, on-the-job training and community college.

Philly is an ideal city for the mission, with 45% African American residents, and “groups we can partner with on wrap-around support, including transportation and childcare,” said Maurice Jones, president and CEO of OneTen.

“It’s the perfect place to knit together that ecosystem. And scale it. The assets – the people – are here.”

Philadelphia’s Black community also represents a microcosm of the racial wealth gap in America: nationally, Black families possess one-tenth of the assets of white families, Jones said. Meanwhile, recent Bureau of Labor Statistics openings release show 11.5 million unfilled jobs in America.

“So we need an alternate pathway” to get them hired and promoted, Jones said.

Bachelor Barrier

Black business leaders say the initiative is sorely needed.

Due to the pandemic and other pre-existing conditions, “the generational wealth gap continues to widen between white and Black American households,” said Regina Hairston, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ & DE.

“We know that business ownership is one pathway to closing that gap. Another pathway to building wealth is through having a family sustaining wage. The OneTen initiative not only connects Black individuals without a four year degree to a job but it seeks to create career pathways. When all of our society has the opportunity to support their families and build wealth, it creates a strong economy and strong neighborhoods. Society benefits.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.