Kiersten Barnet: “When it comes to boosting social mobility, hiring is just the first step.”


6 min read

Kiersten Barnet is Executive Director at the New York Jobs CEO Council, and was co-founder and steering chair at the US 30% Club. Previously, she held a number of roles at Bloomberg, including Global Head, Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index. Here, she shares the ways that the Council is bringing businesses together to improve social mobility, and gives her top tips for boosting this within your own organisation.

What does the New York Jobs CEO Council do? How does it support businesses collaborating with education?

The New York Jobs CEO Council convenes over 30 CEOs, educational institutions, and non-profits in New York City in order to boost collaboration between businesses, education, and community leaders. Our goal is to do something fantastic around social mobility and ultimately help the City have a workforce that looks like its population. In New York, whilst it is rich in programmes run by non-profits and the City, the disparate dots aren’t connected and efforts can become duplicated; at the Jobs Council, we’re trying to bring stakeholders together and provide the system in which those divergent efforts are more cohesively coordinated.

We have a partnership with the New York City Department of Education that we launched last fall, and it serves as a great example of the proof point in scaling we are looking for. This started when CareerWise, a non-profit that provides youth apprenticeships, had given over 300 apprenticeships in the City’s public high schools; now, in partnering with the City, we are expanding that to over 3,000 over the next three years in around 60 high schools. Although that’s far from every school in the City, it’s a critical mass to show that this works. These apprenticeships involve leaving school for 16 hours a week and go to companies like Amazon or JPMorgan Chase where they get great experience, usually in tech or business operations. Another great benefit is in giving young people exposure to the jobs out there, and the confidence to know that they are more than capable of doing them.

“Another great benefit is in giving young people exposure to the jobs out there, and the confidence to know that they are more than capable of doing them.”

Has it been a challenge bringing businesses and the Council together?

In being a CEO-led initiative, it’s hardly surprising that the Council looks for things that are scalable and sustainable – we don’t want programmes that rely purely on philanthropic funding as that may not necessarily be a reliable way to ensure that it is sustainable into the long-term. What we’re really looking for are proof points that we can incubate and refine so that they can then be scaled up and baked into the system at large.

One of the challenges is figuring out ways for businesses to experiment with things that don’t feel as risky. For example, we had one employer that traditionally only hired those with four-year degrees but wanted to see if they could hire for two-year degrees. So, we’ve done a lot with community colleges in the City so that, if you do an apprenticeship, the employer has the chance to validate those programmes and have input into the curriculum. Not only does this ensure that we’re training skills that businesses need, it also ensures the students can benefit from an employer-endorsed curriculum which opens up a huge number of opportunities.

Although this can be daunting, it’s helpful to remember the example of the pandemic as it provides a recent example of businesses rapidly shifting mindset and adopting what works. Pre-pandemic, very few organisations had remote working at all – but the pandemic proved that flexible working is more effective and now it’s mainstream and here to stay. The new mode of working isn’t siloed into a couple of businesses, so everyone can reap the full benefits of it – but you have to take that leap in proving that it works before it can become properly baked into the system.

That’s the beauty inherent in the collectiveness of the Council. When things happen in isolated, siloed pockets they aren’t sustainable in the long-term and will probably fizzle out. With the Council, we provide room for these programmes to breathe and incubate in their early stages so that we have the proof point for the entire City to see.

“With the Council, we provide room for these programmes to breathe and incubate in their early stages so that we have the proof point for the entire City to see.”

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What are your most prescient learnings for boosting social mobility?

Four things spring to mind:

  1. Shift to – or embrace – skills-based hiring. Companies we’ve worked with have reevaluated their degree requirements across roles; the results and feedback have been amazing – for example, at JPMorgan Chase around 70% of jobs don’t require a degree, and at IBM this is 50%. I remember speaking to a barista at a coffee shop who was thinking about going to grad school, as they saw that as the only way towards a rewarding career that delivered for them. They were really interested in financial markets, had plenty of customer service experience, and a bucketload of experience managing a full-time job with full-time education. I recall thinking that they were much less of a risk than I was when I was first hired. They assumed I had a great deal of knowledge and interest because I had a degree and had an internship under my belt, but the reality is that I was a risk. Organisations are looking for employees who are really motivated and can balance competing responsibilities effectively – so they should just hire for that rather than placing so much emphasis on formal qualifications and experience.
  2. Build an inclusive workplace. When it comes to boosting social mobility, hiring is just the first step. To get the most out of people, you need to have an inclusive environment where they can be their authentic self and have paths for meaningful development and progression.
  3. Embrace alternative pathways. Start thinking differently about what you hire for, and reflect on the way talent comes into your organisation at the moment. How can you improve that and tap into the great pool of talented people out there that you aren’t looking at now?
  4. Set a target. Reflecting on the progression of women on boards, I think that people work well with targets. Although the number of women on boards wasn’t the point, it provided something we could measure to get a sense of gender diversity and how successful organisations were in giving it a boost. When we launched, we set a target of hiring 100,000 low income New Yorkers into jobs that were family-sustaining by 2030. As of recently, after only two years we’re almost at 30% of that target and with just 30 companies we’ve managed to help 29,000 people onto these career pathways. The impact is even wider than that – the ripple effect across the talent pool of increasing exposure to career-connected learning is significant, even if they weren’t amongst those that we’ve hired yet.

Could this be replicated in other cities?

Absolutely. Ultimately, we’re trying to create a blueprint that you could adapt for anywhere – if you can pull it off in New York, then you can do it anywhere! We’ve got a massive public education system, convoluted politics, and a great deal of other challenges – if they can be successfully navigated then great challenges elsewhere can too. We’ve recently started getting into public policy discussions in Washington, DC and it feels like such an exciting moment in this space. It really does feel like we are at a pivotal moment because the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labour, and the Department of Education are far more aligned on this issue than I’ve ever seen before, and for the first time really get the huge importance of providing long-term sustainable and rewarding careers open to a whole range of entry pathways.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to create a blueprint that you could adapt for anywhere – if you can pull it off in New York, then you can do it anywhere!”

Do you have any golden rules that you try to follow? And what books are on your bedside table?

I always try to bear in mind the value and importance of relationships. These may be at a macro level between systems and stakeholders, or it may be personal ones that you’ve developed. In either case, you never know when they’ll come back and give you an opportunity to help out or ask for help. I think that’s pretty universal and applies to any job in any sector, really.

Currently, I’ve got The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson by my bedside table. It’s a really fascinating book around how the mind of a toddler is wired and how it develops over time. It’s interesting in the way it talks about the way that they perceive and understand the world – I’ve found it really captivating to dive into.

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