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How Different Racial Groups Think Schools Should Prepare Students for the Future of Work

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We've all seen the hype: Advances in technology, including increased automation, are likely to reshape the workforce over the next two decades. So how should K-12 schools be responding to that?

The answer depends, in part, on the race of the person you're asking, according to a report published this week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based organization that aims to improve the socioeconomic status and civic engagement of African Americans.

African Americans, Latinos, and Asians are more likely than whites to believe that schools should be required to teach computer science to prepare children for the jobs of the future. Twenty-five percent of African Americans supported mandating such courses, compared with 16 percent of whites, 23 percent of Latinos, and 24 percent of Asians.

And African Americans and Asians are less likely than whites and Latinos to support encouraging schools to provide more vocational training options. 

That divide might represent a "fear for many African Americans that they are tracked away from academic subjects into subjects into which they use their hands," said Spencer Overton, the Center's president. He referenced a 19th century debate between African Americans' Booker T. Washington (a believer in vocational training) and W.E.B. Du Bois (a supporter of more formal education.)  "That debate still lingers with us," he said. "That can be difficult, because the African American community should really be competing for all jobs. It shouldn't be a PhD or bust."

Meanwhile, all races supported offering students proficiency in core subjects, particularly whites (20 percent) and African Americans (27 percent). And all races were roughly equally interested in seeing schools teach so-called 'soft-skills,' such as time management and collaboration.

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Communities of color have an especially big stake in the conversation over the future of work, even though that's not something that usually makes it into broader discussions of the issue, Overton said. But over the next two or three decades, people of color will become half the American population, he pointed out. And over that same period, two-thirds of all jobs will require some education beyond high school.

Right now, 27 percent of African American workers are concentrated in professions at high-risk for automation, such as food service, retail, security, and drivers, including taxi and truck drivers. "Our changing economy and world is going to have a disproportionate effect on workers of color," Overton said. (See more here in a December 2017 report, also from the Center).

The report, released July 24, also found that Asian Americans and whites were more likely to see technology as creating greater efficiencies in the workplace than African Americans and Latinos. And African Americans are the group least likely to see technology as providing them with more opportunities.

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There was high interest among all groups in free community college and training to help human workers whose jobs may have been lost because of changes in technology. But African Americans were particularly keen on that solution, with 85 percent of them supporting it, compared with 70 percent of whites, 78 percent of Asians, and 75 percent of Latinos.

"There seems to be some consensus even among most whites that free community college or training is the preferred option here," Overton said.

What's more, all races cited financial considerations as a potential barrier to getting more training, skills, or licenses that could further their careers.

African Americans were also much more likely than whites to support remedies such as offering a guaranteed job to everyone, or universal basic income, in which citizens get an automatic salary from the government. Seventy-one percent of African Americans supported that idea, compared to 46 percent of whites, 64 percent of Latinos, and 61 percent of Asians.

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The report is based on a survey that was conducted from Sept. 1 through Sept. 28 of last year, of a nationally representative sample of 1,115 whites, 667 Blacks, 619 Latinos, and 611 Asian Americans. The survey was reweighted to a 2,000 person sample with 500 interviewees from each group. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points. It is the first of six reports the Center will release this year on race and the future of work.

Want more on the future of work? Check out our Schools & The Future of Work report.

Ian Michael Brock, a Chicago teenager with big ambitions for making it in the tech industry, was profiled in 2018 as part of Education Week's Faces of the Future series.  

--Alyssa Schukar/Education Week


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