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The Impact of Automation on Workers of Color

Photo college of people of color working as cashiers, shelf stockers, administrative assistants and salespeople.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced businesses to rapidly adapt in a variety of ways. And while some adaptations, like rigorous sanitizing routines, will likely fade away, some adaptations are here to stay. Many businesses were moving toward automation before the pandemic, but the push to have fewer workers and more distance between them has led businesses to replace humans with technology at a quicker pace. This rise in automation has the potential to disproportionately affected Black and Latinx workers who are overrepresented in jobs that are at high risk of being automated, according to a recent report from the Hamilton Project, an economic research based public policy company.

Race and Jobs at Risk of Being Automated in the Age of COVID-19” analyzed jobs that are the most and least likely to be at risk for automation and examined how automation would affect different racial groups. Among the least likely jobs to be automated are high-wage jobs that generally require higher education, such as finance professionals, due to the creativity and flexibility that is necessary for these positions. At the other end is a class of low-wage jobs often performed by people with a high school diploma or less, such as nonmedical homecare for the elderly and childcare. These jobs are also at a low risk of automation due to the necessity of dealing with unpredictable human behavior.

Jobs that were deemed at higher risk of automation are able to be performed by sophisticated computer technology. In the age of COVID-19, automation can be appealing because a computer can’t get sick or get other workers sick. This report finds that roles at high risk of automation — such as cashiers, retail salespersons, and administrative assistants — are disproportionately filled by people of Black and/or Latinx descent. 

Black and Latinx workers represent 13 and 18 percent of the labor market, respectively, which mirrors their representation in the general population. However, in the report’s list of the top 30 jobs at the highest risk of automation, which comprises 36.3 million American workers, Black workers represent 24 percent of that workforce and Latinx workers comprise 30 percent. 

Meanwhile, when it comes to jobs at the lowest risk of automation, Black workers are underrepresented in this labor market at 11.6 percent, and Latinx workers are vastly underrepresented at just 7.8 percent.

So where do we go from here? The World Economic Forum has estimated that “75 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 133 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms.” This report was published before the pandemic altered many companies’ plans to increase automation.

The solution to this problem that the article points to is the same solution that MCAN has been pointing to: increased education and funding for students of color to earn a degree. When the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget released their “Hot 50” jobs through 2028, representing the jobs that they project will be in high demand through 2028, 80 percent required formal education of some sort past high school. With the rise in automation, and with many of these automated or soon-to-be automated roles currently being staffed by people of color, it is essential that more funding and effort is put into ensuring that students of color attain a degree. Without it, many people will be left behind without the adequate educational background to be competitive in the job market, worsening existing equity gaps.

Short Description

Schuyler Pruis, MCAN's AmeriCorps VISTA for data and technology, summarizes a recent report on automation and its projected impact on workers of color.