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Despite Employment Gains, Black Workers Now Face a New Challenge


black worker writes code on computer

As the U.S. celebrates Black History Month in February, recent research shows that more Black individuals are making significant strides in their careers.

Black professionals are earning college degrees at much higher rates than they did two decades ago, are starting more businesses and are landing jobs at record numbers. Further, the employment gap between white and Black individuals has shrunk considerably in recent years.

However, a December report by McKinsey & Company predicts that the burgeoning use of generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) in the workplace could widen the racial wealth gap between Black and white households by $43 billion annually by 2045, with Black workers also facing a higher risk of job loss due to this technology.

“As often happens, the advent of a new technology can create or exacerbate divides, including the racial wealth gap,” the report said. “One of the most pressing questions about [GenAI] is how it will affect workers and, specifically, workers of color.”

According to the report:

  • GenAI does not put low-wage jobs at particular risk in the same way previous advances in automation did—it actually has greater automation potential for higher-wage, knowledge work.
  • Automation threatens to automate half of all jobs that don’t require a four-year degree and that pay over $42,000 annually.
  • Occupations most at risk include office support, production and food services—all categories where Black workers are overrepresented.

If reskilling efforts are not undertaken, the likelihood of Black employees being replaced by AI only stands to worsen, the report warned.

Ways to Support Black Employees

However, companies could leverage AI in an inclusive way that accelerates the closure of the racial pay gap and yields equitable benefits if developers “design generative AI with equity as a goal,” the report said.

This is important because GenAI “will alter professional pathways that Black workers rely on to move from low-wage to higher-paying roles,” researchers wrote.

To help Black workers sustain employment as the use of AI in the workplace continues to rise, researchers recommended:

  • Employers in fields likely to automate, such as retail and food services, should contribute to reskilling efforts.
  • AI developers should ensure their models and algorithms aren’t perpetuating or deepening biases.
  • Inclusion, equity and diversity (IE&D) leaders and HR teams will need to quickly understand how to mitigate AI’s negative impacts or risk becoming part of the problem.

McKinsey researchers also recommended that Black individuals learn skills for well-paying jobs that don’t require four-year degrees or pose a high risk of being automated, such as dental hygienists, massage therapists and respiratory therapists.

[SHRM Online: EEOC Solicits Recommendations to Curb AI-Driven Discrimination]

The Need for Professional Development

Jen Mahone Rightler, an HR and IE&D leader based in Flower Mound, Texas, said she was excited about how automation could have a positive impact on Black workers—if done correctly and aligned with the right strategies.

“I especially think that, like anything else, we must have a different set of lenses on what we want the technology to do for us,” she said. “You need the right leaders with the right experience driving those conversations.”

Geri Johnson, an IE&D expert and chief operating officer at public relations firm Next PR in Colorado Springs, Colo., said that GenAI is being promoted as a tool that removes bias in the workplace, but the developers may hold their own biases that wind up impacting the technology.

“While the argument is that AI will remove bias, the people developing the code for generative AI are typically privileged individuals who likely hold biases themselves,” she said. “We’re still lacking diversity in STEM jobs—and STEM jobs are where this code is being developed.”

Companies, especially those in the technology industry, should dedicate financial resources to level the playing field for Black workers, Johnson said. For example, if a company hires a first-generation Black college graduate, the company also needs to offer mentorship and upskilling opportunities that boost the employee’s exposure to AI and other technologies.

“Offering tuition reimbursement is a first step, but it’s not enough,” Johnson said. “If I’m a single Black mother working to make ends meet, how am I going to have time to go back to college, let alone front the money to enroll in the courses?”

Ongoing opportunities for professional growth and mentorship, she explained, “will provide much more value for marginalized communities, make your workplace more equitable and even help prepare your larger workforce for increased AI integration.”

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