Invest in Workers to Invest in the Future

Chike Aguh, A05, chief innovation officer at the U.S. Department of Labor, talks about workplace power dynamics, technology, and the meaning of Labor Day

When Chike Aguh was a child, his mother, an immigrant from rural Nigeria, cut dress fabric for minimum wage at a shop outside New York City. “My parents came to America because they saw an economy where their kids would not have it as hard as they did,” says Aguh, A05. “The America that they came to was built by the American worker.”

Because of his own family’s success, it became Aguh’s personal mission to help others rise, too. He has worked as a second-grade teacher, a lecturer at Columbia University, CEO of a nonprofit connecting underserved populations to affordable internet service and computers, and as head of economic mobility pathways at an education consultancy, focused on community colleges as paths to employment.

Appointed by President Biden, Aguh is now chief innovation officer at the U.S. Department of Labor, advising on the impact of new and emerging technology on workers, and is also the department’s inaugural senior advisor for delivery, and the first Black person to assume these roles.

Aguh recently spoke in his personal capacity to Tufts Now from his home office in Maryland about the pressing concerns touching on workers throughout the country, and the future of work.

Tufts Now: What is the biggest threat to the American worker today, amid automation, inflation, competitiveness from overseas manufacturing, and burnout?

Chike Aguh: At the Department of Labor, we split a lot of our work into two functions. One is what we call worker investment, meaning investing in American worker benefits and training, making sure they are the best they can be when they go into the economy. The other half is what we call worker protection. Once a worker is on the job, how do we make sure that they are respected, protected, and dignified?

I would argue that challenges to the American worker generally fit in one of those two buckets, and that we as a country need to invest more in the American worker to make sure that they are well-placed to meet those challenges.

I’d also argue that once workers are on the job, we need to do more to protect them in all these areas.

What are some of the key issues being discussed in these conversations?

How do we make sure we’re investing in workers? How do we make sure that we’re protecting them once they are on the job? How do we deal with the changes that new technology will bring to the economy? And also, there is the very old challenge which is that workers have never had enough power.

Once they are on the job, how do you make sure that they have the right to organize if they so choose? When Amazon warehouse workers wanted to organize in Bessemer, Alabama, President Biden said something which I will never forget:

“It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: it’s not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop.”

In too many places that’s not totally the case.

We want to feel that workers are safe, that workers have predictable schedules, that workers have wages and benefits, and that workers have access to training and advancement. All of that needs to be available to every worker regardless of their race, their gender, where they were born, and whether they have a disability or not.

There is also the question of equity. Those who are on the wrong side of the power dynamic—women, people of color, low-income workers in rural areas—are the same people who are at risk of having their job changed or obviated by new technology.

In a recent report by management consultants McKinsey & Company titled “The Childcare Conundrum,” 49% of women polled indicated that finding or affording sustainable childcare stops them from taking on more work. What are some innovative or creative solutions for addressing the issue of childcare?

I don’t know if there is an innovative solution. This isn’t rocket science. It’s about return on investment for providing childcare.

Take my family. We have two kids, one who is 5, and one who is 7 months, and we live this every day. Part of the reason why I can do this work and my wife can be a tenured faculty member is that we are lucky to have access to quality childcare and paid leave. Both of us had parents go through illnesses recently, and to be able to have childcare was key. Not only is it morally right, but it allows us to be economically productive.

Bluntly, we need companies and our country to realize that it makes economic sense to invest in childcare. Having childcare onsite and paying for it would allow companies’ workers to be more productive, and would reduce turnover, which has a cost. I think we will see more companies realize that.

There’s a lot of talk about job creation, but the roles being created often offer minimum wage and aren’t the most secure. Are there examples of people receiving the skills needed to work in the fastest growing sectors and to really advance?

I spent a lot my career in the technology space, and whether it’s cybersecurity or basic software development, we’re beginning to see folks being able to do certificate programs that can take six months or even less. They are able to do things like data debugging or software coding in a very short period of time, because there’s such a need.

Particularly in industries where we’ve seen numerous job openings, we are beginning to see a greater openness to populations that they never would have looked at before. If you look at the technology industry and folks coming out of incarceration, for example, you can find organizations like the Center for Employment Opportunities doing this, even for people without two- or four-year degrees.

How can companies and workers use innovation to grow their jobs?  

There are a ton of emerging technologies—from AI to quantum, artificial reality, virtual reality, drones, and autonomous vehicles. But for me, innovation is about a new way of doing something, done at scale, and for a purpose. It’s less about particular technologies or data tools and more about habits of mind.

I would argue for doing these things: First, scan across fields for things that are already working in one place that can apply to your field. Second, always have the people you’re designing for in the room when you’re designing.

Lastly, make sure that you don’t roll out everything at once, and that you test and learn along the way before build to scale. This is something that has been learned in the private sector, typically in the technology space, which has much more of a lean startup, agile mindset. We are beginning to see this mindset move into more established spaces from legacy companies to government.

We are approaching Labor Day—what does it mean to you?  

My family’s story is a classic immigrant story. My grandparents didn’t go past middle school. We are from a far-out-of-the-way village in Nigeria that most Nigerians will never visit. My parents had Peace Corps volunteers in their classrooms. They grew up over the hill from one another and they got a golden ticket to come to the United States and study. I’m now here as an appointee of an American president.

In a very specific way, the role of American workers and the things that we’ve done to empower American workers are why I’m here. Here’s one example: I work in the Frances Perkins Building in Washington. When she was asked by FDR to become labor secretary in 1933—and be the first female member of a cabinet in American history—she said, “Sir, I will absolutely do that, but I need you to commit to a couple of things.”

We know those things today as Social Security, minimum wage, worker compensation, and the end of child labor. Whether you’re in a union or not, you benefit from those things, and for me, that’s represented by Labor Day. This country I grew up in has made a very different life for me than my ancestors experienced, because the American worker stood up and built this place.

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