AI May Narrow ‘Gateways’ to the Middle Class for Black Workers

A new McKinsey report says AI could eventually do more than half of the high-mobility jobs available to people without four-year degrees—posing a threat to Black workers unless employers deploy the tech with equity in mind.

With automation already transforming the workforce, a new report from McKinsey & Company warns that the rise of generative AI threatens a new group of marginalized workers: Black people in high-mobility jobs who lack four-year degrees.

The results could be devastating, according to the report from the company’s Institute for Black Economic Mobility, potentially widening the already yawning racial wealth gap by $43 billion each year.

Employers face a gen AI tipping point, according to the report: “They can apply it in a manner that promotes inclusion, fairness, and opportunity, or they can let it evolve without particular attention to equity and societal implications.”

The big idea: Automation’s anticipated impact on low-wage, low-skill jobs is well documented—clerical, production, food-service, and mechanical installation and repair jobs are at greatest risk, which are all occupations overrepresented by Black workers. 

“Even before generative AI, Black workers’ jobs were among the most vulnerable to automation and the first to be cut when the economy slowed down,” says Michael Collins, vice president of Jobs for the Future’s Center for Racial Economic Equity. “Even when Black workers take steps to upskill, too often they still aren’t advancing in and into high-wage jobs in growing industries.”

Gen AI, however, adds a new wrinkle: it specifically endangers jobs in higher-wage knowledge fields, such as entry-level coding, along with supervisory positions in production and office settings. 

McKinsey predicts that gen AI will impact two tiers of high-mobility positions that don’t require a four-year degree: jobs that emphasize experience over degrees and provide a “gateway” to other professional roles, and target jobs, which offer even higher salaries and greater stability. The report notes that although 74% of Black workers lack a college degree, one in every eight has moved into a gateway or target job in the last five years. 

Without action, gen AI could close this “pathway to upward mobility that many Black workers have relied on,” the report says. 

Accelerating Reskilling

McKinsey predicts that between 2030 and 2060, gen AI could be performing half of gateway or target jobs in the United States. Some of the most vulnerable include training and development specialists, commercial and industrial designers, and social and community service managers.

If anything, that timeline is too conservative, says Terrence Cummings, chief opportunity officer for Guild, an education benefits and career platform. AI will change more jobs more quickly than the report suggests, he says, adding that “the impact for the Black workforce will be even more pronounced, so organizations need to be fast and specific.”

But this transformation also means that employers must address the gen AI knowledge gap: 

  • A recent survey of Guild members found that only about 25% of frontline workers have been exposed to AI despite 95% wanting more AI skills, he says. 
  • In the 12 months preceding this fall, Guild saw an eightfold increase in people applying for AI education courses, but the vast majority of those applicants already held a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Beyond teaching workers the basics of gen AI and expanding their exposure to it, Cummings says employers need to help them understand what the adoption of the technology means for their future. “There’s an onus on leaders to clearly communicate how they think it will change their organizations,” he says.

Goodbye to ‘Future-Proof Jobs’

The McKinsey report highlights a pressing need for companies, education providers, and workforce agencies to both redesign and accelerate upskilling and reskilling programs. One solution is shifting from an emphasis on “future-proof jobs” to “future-proof skills,” like critical thinking, complex communication, and interpersonal connections.

In tech jobs, for example, gen AI can perform rudimentary coding tasks, but “only software engineering managers have the nuanced skills to test and edit all kinds of code and to coordinate across multiple teams,” the report says.

“Focusing efforts on developing nonautomatable skills such as these will better position Black workers to develop the increased resilience needed to weather the rapid changes that gen AI will bring.”

That mirrors research from Jobs for the Future, says Alex Swartsel, a managing director who is leading the launch of the organization’s Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work. Future-proof skills “are at least somewhat important now in all of the highest-employment jobs in critical industries and will likely become more important over time as employers and workers shift job responsibilities to adapt to AI,” she says.

This information serves as a “call to action to employers to think about the AI revolution in terms of job transformation rather than job elimination and replacement,” she says. It also emphasizes why employers embracing AI need to measure and monitor the impact these sweeping changes have on Black workers, and to be prepared to “take action if certain populations experience disparate impact.”

“Black workers, especially those working in occupations most vulnerable to automation, need seats at the table not just in the design but in the deployment of AI solutions in the workplace,” Swartsel says.

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