When it comes to postpandemic economic recovery, Michael Collins, a vice president at JFF, warns against creating a two-tiered education and training system that further marginalizes people from low-income families and communities of color.

“If people aren’t working, to talk to them about a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree is ridiculous. We have to get people to work,” Collins said in the latest episode of Strada’s “Lessons Earned” podcast. “At the same time, if we only focus on first-order effects like getting people into jobs and we’re not considering second- and third-order effects, we could be perpetuating inequality.”

Collins said it’s important to offer a variety of pathways to gain new job skills. But he cautions that in the rush to get everyone back to work, many people will be delayed in pursuing more robust education and training that will make them more resilient in future economic crises.

In this, as in any economic downturn, he said, those with bachelor’s degrees and above weather the storm better than those without. And when hiring begins again, they are the first to recover. Collins said he worries that low-income Black and Latino workers will be steered toward lateral career moves and short-term skills training while more affluent white learners continue to pursue bachelor’s degrees, increasing both their income and their future career opportunities.

“A lot of the people that are pushing skills are people who themselves are not only credentialed, but highly credentialed, from selective institutions. And I would wager that their children are also on track to be,” Collins said. “I have a problem if we are saying skills are the ceiling for Black, Latinx, and Native American people.”

The answer, he said, is to meet people where they are but to keep an eye on the future, ensuring the skills they are learning now will move them forward toward more education and better job opportunities in the future. Gaining practical work-related skills is important for all learners, he said, “but it can’t be everything.”

To hear more from Collins, listen to the podcast.