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Book Review
November 2022

Creating future career opportunities for African Americans

Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us. By Sherrell Dorsey, with a forward by Angela Jackson. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2022, 276 pp., $25 hardcover.

In Upper Hand: The Future of Work for the Rest of Us, author Sherrell Dorsey argues that early access to technology can create better career and economic opportunities for members of disadvantaged communities. Although African Americans and other minority groups have always been involved in leading technology forward, their contributions have not always been recognized. There are ways, including establishing community support groups and participating in team competitions, to provide minority youth with access to the jobs that will drive the nation’s economic future. Dorsey lived these opportunities and, through her story, lets readers know how they, too, can plan their lives and careers.

The book’s opening revolves around the author’s family and early life, which set the stage for her subsequent growth and development. This story begins with Dorsey’s grandfather moving the family from Detroit to Seattle and becoming a part of the technology-driven future. Dorsey’s family recognized and respected the importance of technology and information, providing her with access to opportunities others did not have. Aiding these family efforts was the surrounding community, which valued learning and intellectual curiosity. Armed with educational CDs and insights into the history and technological contributions of African Americans, Dorsey was able to gain a deeper understanding of her community and find opportunities to grow. She took courses in computer programming and secured internships that would shape her understanding of the world and her place in it.

Dorsey’s experience does not reflect that of many minority members of our society. The author notes that, according to a 2021 McKinsey study, more than half of Black workers are in low-paying but essential jobs in fields such as healthcare, food preparation, retail, and customer service. This situation is due, in part, to segregated locales having fewer economic opportunities than wealthier communities. In the case of Dorsey, she had the fortune to intern at Microsoft for 3 years while in high school, building a resume that college graduates would envy.

As noted in the book, one of the issues facing today’s youth is related to credentialling expectations. Many jobs do not require a specific degree, but they do require technical knowledge, skills, and experience that are hard to demonstrate to potential employers. There are many existing initiatives that can help with this problem. Hackathons are one example, allowing members of collaborative teams to create programming solutions, network with peers, strengthen their resumes, and win prizes.

Dorsey spends some time discussing technology and how it is changing everyday life. She argues that advances in robotics and automation are not to be feared; instead, they allow workers to be more efficient, safer, and socially engaged. Rather than destroying jobs, robots create opportunities for upskilling and moving into higher paying occupations with lower physical demands. This insight is especially relevant to African Americans, many of whom are employed in jobs amenable to automation. However, Dorsey warns that while technology offers opportunities, some of its advancements, such as facial recognition software, can discriminate against minority groups. Such cases can create fear and have led to the banning of software over privacy concerns.

Another area that Dorsey dives into is wage negotiation. She recalls cases in which she undervalued her work and accepted wages lower than what she was worth. This is a problem that can persist during one’s career and lead to lower savings. Students seeking jobs or internships need to learn how to negotiate wages by using available employment data and, if needed, be ready to move on to other opportunities. This skill is important in negotiating with both legacy and startup employers. A lack of understanding of the fundamentals of the stock market can also hold people back because they cannot get the most out of their opportunities in assessing stock options as a part of compensation.

Unfortunately, opportunities can be limited by gatekeepers. According to Dorsey, connections are often very important for getting a foot in the door, and a look at the major companies in the high-technology field shows that most of their executives come from a very small subset of universities. This means that university choice can play a role in career planning and should be informed by knowledge of the target industry and the paths its leaders have taken. Also, spending time on skill-building activities is important. Learning how to run an effective meeting by taking on leadership roles in clubs and other organizations, for example, can pay long-term dividends.

The later chapters of Upper Hand focus on jobs, analyzing future employment opportunities. Much of the future of work may be about creating opportunities through self-run businesses. Dorsey describes how her many side hustles became the basis for her own career. She also discusses the groups she formed to help African-American and other minority members of her community develop their high-technology skills and connect with others. One example is BLKTECHCLT, a group Dorsey established in the Charlotte, NC, area, bringing together like-minded people who thought they were alone in their aspirations. The opportunities to establish connections of this kind can be limited by a lack of access to the digital tools that one needs to become a part of the future economy. Such tools and the internet are keys to the modern world, but many communities do not have access to them.

In the book’s final chapter, Dorsey delves into the 2019–29 employment projections of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, supplementing base projections data with related information on professional certificates and specific degrees required for certain occupations. Consistent with the focus of the book, the chapter highlights employment opportunities in technology, although some technology-related jobs, such as those of CNC programmers, are not included. While Upper Hand was published in 2022, Dorsey’s use of 2019 base-year projections data is reasonable because 2020 was heavily affected by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Upper Hand offers an interesting look into what work means to individuals, particularly those of minority status. As an analyst in the BLS Employment Projections program, I was drawn to the book by its title, expecting to learn about the types of jobs that will likely be available in a decade. Although the book does not identify any specific new jobs, it does examine what skills and abilities will be needed in the future. It also discusses existing occupations that will remain relevant and should be sought by young people.

Another strength of the book is its effort to identify specific steps, described at the end of each chapter, that can be taken to develop the potential of minority youth and find a path forward for disadvantaged communities. Rather than being derived from a simple thought exercise, these steps are based on a lot of supporting data that connect Dorsey’s lived experiences with the rest of the world. This pragmatic approach makes the information presented in the book more accessible to readers, demonstrating how Dorsey developed through her personal and professional life, how she helped others, and how she plans to continue to contribute to society.

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About the Reviewer

William Lawhorn

William Lawhorn is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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