The Future of Work


with Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies


Feb 01, 2018

According to a 2017 McKinsey & Company report, 50% of current work activities are technically automatable by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies discusses how automation strongly impacts the global workforce for African Americans. A life-learning approach is one way to adapt to the advancement of technology.

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Traynham: From self-checkout registers at grocery stores to driverless trucks and buses, automation is an increasing reality. And for some, that reality will put their ability to earn a living at risk. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Robert Traynham. Joining me is Spencer Overton, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Spencer, welcome to the program.

Overton: Thanks for having me.

Traynham: So, let´s talk about this new world that we´re living in. Should we be afraid?

Overton: Well, automation is coming. It´s always been with us here. We talk about agricultural society moving toward industrialization and fewer people needed on farms but more people being needed in cities in factories. But it´s happening fast now because of artificial intelligence, data analytics, these types of things. So we certainly need to be aware as individuals and as workers. And as society, we need policies to help us transition in terms of these new jobs.

Traynham: And for the benefit of this conversation specifically, Spencer, how does it impact people of color?

Overton: Well, we did a study, and we found that 31% of Latino workers, 27% of African-American workers are concentrated in just 30 jobs at high risk to automation. So, these are, like, cashiers, right? You think about the self-checkout lane or you think about Amazon and people ordering online and fewer cashiers, things like drivers because of autonomous vehicles -- bus drivers, taxi drivers, these types of people, right? So, it´s gonna have a significant and a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

Traynham: It feels like to me, Spencer, that we know it´s coming. We´re whispering about it, but the question that I have is what are we doing to either embrace this new technology? One could make the argument that this new technology does two things. One -- It lowers costs for everyone. That´s what the folks at, you know, Amazon and some folks would say. Other people would say, candidly speaking, you know, a robot can do it much better than a human, and so the quality of life for that human is much better in terms of, you know, you heard the stories in the factory workers where repetitive -- I forget what that´s called, but in terms of doing the same thing over and over and over again. That´s a bad thing for humans. Your response?

Overton: So, there are definitely some things that will be improved in terms of, you know, human beings. So, we think about -- Transportation is one of the biggest barriers to get to work for people. And so if we can lower the cost of transportation so that people are getting rides on an autonomous vehicle to work or to a bus line, that´ll be a good thing. Right now, bus drivers, school bus drivers, have to both supervise kids and drive. If, basically, the school bus driver can focus on supervising the children while an autonomous vehicle gets the kids there, right, that could actually be a good thing, right? The problem, though, is this transition and the fact that certain segments of society will be disproportionately impacted and, frankly, may lose jobs or may not be able to transition without some support. This can be an overall good thing for society, but we shouldn´t put the costs on a small segment of society that´s not necessarily able to really best bear the cost of that transition.

Traynham: I understand what you´re saying. Two-part question -- One, if I´m a person that looks like you and I, person of color, and I´m watching this program now, what is a solution? What do you want them to do? What is the message that you want them to hear?

Overton: Well, I think a big thing -- and it sounds like a platitude, but it´s incredibly true -- this notion of lifelong learning, right, being on kind of the cutting edge of your area and what you do and kind of taking that initiative in terms of lifelong learning. if you´re a mayor in a city like El Paso or Detroit or Gary, Indiana, really being a convener and bringing together the private sector and community colleges and understanding, "Well, what are the skills that are needed and in demand, and how can we design this community-college curriculum so that it´s offering the skills that are in demand and needed?"

Traynham: Spencer, this is a great, great conversation to have. We´re running out of time, but two other final questions for you. Where can folks find out more about the report that you´ve done? And very, very quickly, walk us through what the next chapter looks like in terms of the report.

Overton: Well, people can go to to look at the report. Next focus is really on solutions. This can be an opportunity, Robert. If you remember the movie "Hidden Figures," you know, the women in that movie who were mathematicians, they knew that the IBM was coming, the computer was coming, and they went out, and they learned Fortran. And so when the IBM came, they were the ones who were situated to work the IBM, right? So the question is, how can we do the same thing today in Baltimore, in El Paso, in Detroit, in Gary, Indiana, and these other parts of the country?

Traynham: Huntington, West Virginia. You´re going down the list. I mean, there´s so many small towns and communities that are looking themselves in the mirror and saying, "What next for us?" And I would say to you, what´s next is the future. Spencer Overton, thank you very much for joining us, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Keep up the great work over there.

Overton: Thanks so much, Robert.

Traynham: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit I´m Robert Traynham.

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