We’ve all seen, or at least heard, of the 1960s show, The Jetsons – the popular cartoon set in a utopian future. The show paints a rosy picture of the conveniences afforded by technology. From hover cars to robotic maids, technology appears to ease many stress factors and allow the Jetsons to live a life of leisure. But fast-forward a few decades, and what seemed like simple technological solutions are now a threat to a large part of the labor market, especially among African-Americans. A study conducted by Mckinsey & Company, found that “African-American workers are disproportionately concentrated in the kinds of support roles most likely to be affected” by technology. Roles such as truck drivers and postal workers have a high potential to be automated. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that the US lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000 to technology. On the other hand, roles with a low representation of African Americans, such as software developers, face a lesser chance of being replaced by technology in the near future.
National Urban League CEO, Marc Morial said to Vox, this idea of a digital divide “isn’t new.” Morial continued, “Black Americans have repeatedly been left behind when America’s technology makes a leap forward, be it when slavery and Reconstruction blocked black people from the benefits of farming technology, or when technological revolutions in the North were less accessible to poor black people fleeing the South.”
This begs the question, how can the black community make sure it doesn’t get left behind this time around? Software Engineer and graduate student, Phillip Abel says the African-American community needs to be strategic and “vigilante” when preparing for the tech revolution. Abel credits learning computer science and programming to a life of employment and certainty “because regardless of what AI does, there will always be a need for people who can write programming instructions that automate systems.” Many experts echo Abel’s point of learning and retraining programs, especially in the field of computer and data science. IBM names cloud engineering, data science, cyber threat detection and UI/UX as the four skills in most-demand across the country.
In fact, UX Design Consultant, Michael C Hicks credits learning these new skills to propelling his career forward. “[The African-American community should] invest in practical, low-cost, continued education. I have a background in design from the Savannah College of Art and Design, but I have used online courses like Udemy, Team Treehouse, and HubSpot to gain valuable training that has propelled my career as much as, if not more than, my college education.”
Luckily, these types of opportunities are on the rise. Apprenticeships and programs like Futures Fund, Opportunity@Work, Code 2040 and Project QUEST (Quality Employment Training through Skills Training) make sure low-income participants have the same opportunity to become the next engineer as those of General Assembly, a computer-skills training company, which has pricier offerings. Graduates of these programs can see growth in annual salaries from $18,000 – $85,000. There are also recruitment agencies, such as Jopwell, that specifically cater to people of color. It’s also important to note special STEM programs like Black Girls Code invest in the next generation, especially young black girls. The Hill noted exposure to STEM allows children to pursue careers in the fields of math and science early on versus retraining mid-career.
With a Nielsen report putting black buying power at $1.2 trillion, the question is: will black America invest in a future that’s competitive with the modern technological landscape? The National Urban League’s annual report, the State of Black America, shows black people are one of the racial groups most likely to use technology, but less likely to be employed in the tech space. The study revealed black Americans have created ‘thriving communities on platforms like Twitter,’ but keep up low visibility at companies like Uber, Facebook and Google. “I think African-Americans, or people of color, have opportunities to use technology to design new lifestyles” says Hicks. “There are fewer barriers to acquiring higher paying jobs and more resources to start online businesses, today.” Hicks backed this statement by referring to a HubSpot report stating 48% of customers start their research on mobile before they make a purchase.
If Black Americans want to lead the same life given by technology as the Jetsons without fear of being left behind the tech curve, investing in oneself comes first. “I think knowing how to use technology is one half of the coin for success. The other half is an inquisitive mindset,” says Hicks. “Having a desire to pull things apart and discover why they work allows us to develop better solutions is. I think this is a necessary characteristic of a winner.” Whether through coding programs, starting an online business or taking an online course, the options are endless. There are more opportunities today than ever to change career paths and start anew.