Making the case for rebuilding our communities in ways that expand opportunities for all Americans.
This nation has always suffered from entrenched racial disparity — and today, the wealth gap between white and Black workers is still substantial — and growing. As technology changes in the workplace, artificial intelligence and automation pose a significant risk to levels of the economic trajectory, life expectancy, and social mobility of Black communities, especially for workers approaching mid-life and mid-career statuses.
In a 2019 report, McKinsey found that the racial disparity is quantifiable. “African Americans start from a deprived position in the workforce, with an unemployment rate twice that of white workers, a pattern that persists even when controlling for education, duration of unemployment, and the cause of unemployment,” the report said.
But systemic racism extends beyond hiring biases, according to Washington Monthly: “It’s not merely that black Americans have more trouble getting jobs than their white counterparts,” an article on the widening racial gap said. “It’s that, when they do get jobs, they often don’t pay well or fairly.”
Often, these are the jobs most vulnerable to technological disruptions. AARP and The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that “a large portion of African Americans currently work in jobs that will produce the most displacement from automation by 2030.”  
Ready to Adapt
Black employees are more than ready to adapt to these changes, given the opportunity. AARP and The Joint Center surveyed Black workers of all ages and found that respondents value stable work over all other priorities. But respondents also said they were ready to learn new skills, especially in midlife. “Over half of aging African Americans surveyed indicated that they would be interested in some form of employer provided training program, and 68 percent indicating they would be somewhat or very interested in being paid for the time they spend in training,” the survey found. 
For low-income workers, who often can’t afford to lose wages for training, this is vital. AARP found that, among African Americans of all ages, financial constraints (49%) were cited as the leading major barrier to obtaining additional training. “This holds true for aging African Americans as well, with 45 percent indicating that financial constraints are a significant barrier. Among African Americans of all ages, being able to get time off of work was the second major barrier (22%), while this was less of a concern for African Americans 55+,” the report said.
Building a New Workforce
The COVID-19 crisis has hobbled businesses and unemployment everywhere has surged to heights not seen since the Great Depression. But even before the pandemic, experts said an automation-driven unemployment crisis was looming. If we want to successfully transition workers into new roles in the coming decades, AARP recommended that private and public sector organizations need to institute policies and practices that make re-skilling readily available to all workers.
The report’s findings suggest that private-sector employers need to step up. “…Over half of aging African Americans surveyed indicated that they would be interested in some form of employer provided training program, and 68 percent indicating they would be somewhat or very interested in being paid for the time they spend in training,” AARP and The Joint Center found.
But the government, they added, also has to play a crucial role. AARP and The Joint Center report that most Black workers felt the government bore responsibility to help re-skill its citizens, and “a large majority of African Americans 55+ said that they would support tuition-free community college or vocational training.” This would be to the government’s advantage, too, as a more adaptable workforce makes for a stabler economy and lower unemployment.
The AARP and The Joint Center report made several specific recommendations: 

  • Increase funding for community college and vocational training. Access to top-notch education lets workers pivot at any age.
  • Expand tuition-free community college programs to better allow aging workers to learn alongside their younger colleagues.
  • Expand access to sectoral training so that investments are effective and efficient, and employees can access the learning they need.
  • Increase incentives for employers to provide on-the-job training, especially for employees who are low income earners. 
  • Provide portable training benefits for workers who are in non-traditional work arrangements and can’t travel.
  • Modernize and expand tax incentives for employer-provided training. 
  • Increase job security and stability for low income workers through full employment policy and robust safety net supports.

In the past months, Americans have had to rediscover their own resilience. But they should not have to go it alone. According to Jean Accius, “We are at a turning point. On one hand, we can continue to operate with a patchwork approach whereby inequities continue to fester and harm the most vulnerable among us. Or we reimagine and not just rebuild but rebuild our communities better in ways that expand opportunities for all.” If the government and the private sector work together to co-create the systems that will ensure that the future of work doesn’t exacerbate disparities, we can create infrastructure that sets all Americans up for success as we adapt to the evolving world economy. Investing in workers throughout their lives can only bolster our security and help us emerge from these crises a stronger, more just, and economically sturdy nation.