Automation

and the future of work in Black America

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Artificial intelligence is slated to disrupt 4.5 million jobs for African Americans

 

Without concerted effort, automation could heighten disparities that already harm minority workers.

 

How automation affects the US workforce is largely a question of which jobs and activities can be most easily automated. Change can happen quickly as individual workers are displaced—which is more likely in some types of roles than in others. The kinds of support activities performed by service workers, administrative-support workers, operatives, laborers, and helpers are, not surprisingly, more easily automated than are the directive activities performed by executives, professionals, technicians, and sales and craft workers. And that leaves African Americans especially vulnerable.

African American workers are disproportionately concentrated in the kinds of support roles most likely to be affected. Moreover, efforts to ease a general workforce transition into an automated future could wind up worsening existing racial disparities in income, opportunity, and wealth.

Given that African American workers face a significant amount of risk from the rise of automated technologies in the workplace—in an effort to identify the most targeted and effective interventions—below is a range of relevant factors including occupations that are most at risk from automation, job growth, and decline in various regions of the United States, and the disproportionate impacts of automation on African American subpopulations.

 

Occupations.

As shown in prior research, African Americans are overrepresented in occupations likely to be most affected by automation, and this remains accurate for our 2030 projection.

 

In addition, African Americans are underrepresented in the occupational categories that are most resistant to automation-based displacement.

 

African Americans are overrepresented in office support, food services, and production work industries (Exhibit 1).

These industries are most vulnerable to a net loss in jobs. Whereas African Americans are underrepresented in professions such as education, health, and business, in which there could be a net gain in jobs.

Understanding the 2030 risk for African Americans

Exhibit 1

African American employment is concentrated in low-paying jobs

Research also shows that African Americans tend to hold occupations at the lower end of the pay scale. Only half of the top ten occupations that African Americans typically hold, pay above the federal poverty guidelines for a family of four ($25,750), and all ten of those occupations fall below the median salary for a US worker ($52,000) (Exhibit 2). Many of these occupations are among the top 15 occupations most at risk of automation-based displacement and are also projected to affect young African American workers without a college degree.

African American employment is concentrated in low-paying jobs.

Top 10 occupations for African Americans

Exhibit 2

By Kelemwork Cook, Duwain Pinder, Shelley Stewart III, Amaka Uchegbu, and Jason Wright

Preparing for the future

There are many challenges, as the numbers show, but opportunities for African American workers and public- and private-sector institutions to limit the adverse effects of automation remain. Research points to two sets of solutions that can help alleviate the challenges compounded by economic intersectionality. The first set of solutions targets geographies—that is, improving economic conditions in regions in which African Americans are currently concentrated or enabling African American worker mobility. The second set targets capabilities—that is, improving skill development and education levels in the African American community to create additional pathways to better occupations that could be at lower risk of disruption by automation.

Our

Ability.

Interventions related to the accumulation and deployment of skills and capabilities can also help stem the challenges automation poses to African Americans.

Black men without a college degree are particularly vulnerable to job loss

Supporting attainment of higher education. Disparities in educational attainment are a primary contributor to the increased risk of job disruption from automation for the African American workforce. The projected displacement risk drops significantly for African American and white employees who have bachelor’s degrees. However, African Americans are overrepresented in the population that has only some college experience or no college experience, and they are significantly underrepresented in the population that has a bachelor’s or graduate degree (Exhibit 3).  Public- and private-sector investment in the higher-education sector, with a focus on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), can help decrease this educational attainment gap. HBCUs educate and train almost 20 percent of all African American college graduates despite making up only 3 percent of the country’s colleges and universities.

Exhibit 3

Professional

Certificates

Increasing access to sub-baccalaureate programs may decrease job displacement. Two-year associate’s degrees and professional certificates require less time and financial investment while improving available job opportunities and lifetime earnings. These credentials provide access to skills in demand,  giving earners an advantage over their counterparts.

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