2020 Democratic presidential candidates should be talking about the future of work for people of color

This week, 20 Democratic presidential candidates took the debate stage in my hometown of Detroit. While the candidates covered important issues such as manufacturing, health care, and immigration, most did not discuss another critical issue—the future of work and how it could disproportionately affect most Detroiters and other people of color across the country.

Last week, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a report, Racial Differences on the Future of Work: A Survey of the American Workforce, that examined how different racial groups perceive the future of work. The results show that presidential candidates should pay much more attention to helping people of color prepare for the changing economy.

In fact, when we asked who bears the greatest responsibility to help the workforce prepare for a changing economy, black, Latino, and Asian American respondents were more likely to say that the federal government held more responsibility than individuals and their families, employers, colleges, K-12 schools or state governments.

The respondents’ other perspectives provide a roadmap for policymakers across the board.

A majority of people of color surveyed said they would be interested in obtaining additional training or education to prepare for the changing nature of work. For example, African American, Latino, and Asian American respondents all expressed significant interest in a community college, in-person certification program or course, and an in-person bachelor’s or master’s degree program. Over 70 percent of all respondents—black, Latino, Asian American, and white—were interested in employer-provided tuition support and on-the-job training if they were offered the option.

Unfortunately, all racial groups (between 47 and 50 percent) cited financial constraints as a barrier to gaining additional training. This barrier was cited much more than any other, including being able to get time off from your current job, accessibility to appropriate training, child care responsibilities, and not feeling personally capable of acquiring new skills.

This provides an opportunity for the federal government to play a role in facilitating skills development, either by funding high-quality higher education, credentials, and certifications, or by providing tax incentives to employers who provide tuition support or on-the-job training. This could especially be effective considering that there was unified overwhelming support (over 70 percent) for free community college/training among all racial groups as a policy for workers whose jobs have been eliminated because of technology.

Ensuring inclusive access to high-quality education and training is critical. Studies show that workers with a high school degree or less were much more likely to be displaced during the 2007-2009 recession, obtained few of the new jobs created after the recession, and today are at a much higher risk of displacement from automation. 

To be sure, people of color surveyed were much more likely to indicate that technology provided more opportunities rather than resulted in a reduction in the workforce or has taken opportunities away. Our research, however, shows that the future may hold challenges—and the impact will be felt by African Americans and Latinos the most. A 2017 report from the Joint Center found that 31 percent of Latinos and 27 percent of African Americans are concentrated in just 30 occupations at high-risk to automation. A 2019 report by McKinsey Global Institute came to a similar conclusion.

The Midwest is no stranger to what happens when the federal government fails to implement policies to avoid job displacement. Policymakers made the mistake of not providing sufficient training and transition support to address the effects of trade on workers. Right now, federal policymakers still have a chance to support communities, particularly black communities, who are more prone to the adverse effects from automation.

People of color account for over 90 percent of Detroit’s residents according to the U.S. Census, and over 40 percent of Democratic registered voters according to the Pew Research Center. By not sufficiently addressing the policies needed to best navigate the future of work for people of color, the 2020 candidates did a disservice to the constituents they want to represent.

The next debates are scheduled to take place on Sept. 12 and 13 in Houston, where people of color make up 75.1 percent of the city’s population. As presidential candidates continue to roll out their priorities, it’s important for American workers that they include policies focusing on the future of work.

Spencer Overton is president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a professor of law at George Washington University Law School