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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Innovation

Opening Remarks by Chike Aguh, Chief Innovation Officer, U.S. Department of Labor

November 04, 2021 / by Chike Aguh

Chike Aguh

Chief Innovation Officer, United States Department of Labor


-Liz: Now we turn to the day ahead, and it’s really my great pleasure to introduce our first speaker. Chike Aguh is the Chief Innovation Officer at the United States Department of Labor. He leads efforts to use innovative technologies, partnerships and practices to accelerate the department’s mission of delivering a fu

-Liz: Now we turn to the day ahead, and it’s really my great pleasure to introduce our first speaker. Chike Aguh is the Chief Innovation Officer at the United States Department of Labor. He leads efforts to use innovative technologies, partnerships and practices to accelerate the department’s mission of delivering a future of work that includes and dignifies every American. Among his many professional milestones, Chike is also a 2020-2021 Technology and Human Rights Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights, where he has been focusing on the future of work and its impact on racial equity. Previously, he has served as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force on the Future of Work and was an inaugural Future of Work Fellow at the International Society for Technology and Education and an expert advisor to the American AI Forum. If you haven’t had a chance to hear from Chike before, I’m betting that you will conclude as I have that he has a true passion for finding ways to integrate technology for good and in making the future of work inclusive, empowering and maximizing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the American worker. So it’s my great pleasure to introduce to all of you Chike Aguh.

-Chike: Liz, thank you so much for that generous introduction, and really, thank you to all who are watching. I want to particularly give thanks and gratitude to Kristina, a good friend from Jobs for the Future, also to new friends from the Association of Talent Development, also from SHRM-Atlanta. Again, I look forward to, and the Department of Labor looks forward to partnering with all of you who I’ve just named and around the country on these important efforts. I also have to, again, being a Department of Labor guy, have to thank my fellow labor colleagues, particularly from our Office of Disability Employment Policy, some of whom you’ll hear from today who have really been at the cutting edge of “How do we use technology to create and accommodate that’s not just effective and growing but also one that is equitable?” and I think they’ve really been a model for us here at the Department of Labor and, I think, for the broader workforce for how we do that. What I wanted to do today in just my time was to really talk about a couple of things: one, why we should care about the role in emerging technology and particularly XR, in terms of creating a more equitable and more effective economy. Secondly, I wanted to talk about how we use those innovations for the benefit of our workforce. Secondly, how we create the workforce to sustain those innovations, and then lastly, really talk about, what can we and should we be doing together to facilitate that work in that future? And so, bluntly, why do I care about this? And some of it is biographical. You know, I have a very classic immigrant story to this country. My parents are from a village in a forest of Nigeria that most Nigerians themselves will never go to and never visit. My grandparents didn’t go past middle school, and my parents had Peace Corps volunteers in their classrooms, and they, one day, got golden tickets to come study and live here in the United States of America where me and my siblings were born. And when I think about how my parents came to America in the late ’70s, early ’80s with really not much to their name, I think about – If someone were to come to this country today like they did back then, as black people, as immigrants, what would make it easier for them to make their way like my parents did? And the answer is, in many ways, the application of technologies like we’re talking about because so much of our economy and our society is based on them. Then we have to figure out for those most vulnerable, most overlooked populations how we are applying them for their benefit and really for the benefit of us all. Secondly, why do I care about it? Also, biographical, and this plays to our work from our colleagues at ODEP,the Office of Disability Employment Policy. You know, I am the father of a son on the autism spectrum, and when I – I know his future is bright. I am very hopeful for it, but I know one of the things that will help ensure that future is, again, the intelligent application of these technologies to make a difference in his life and the life of those that he works with. That’s why I care, and in that – those nuggets, looking at those populations that we need to get the most out of, again, the people of color, immigrants, women, people with disabilities. We, in this moment of workforce, do not have an American worker to waste, and the way that we can unlock those superpowers that everyone has, that potentially every worker has that we desperately need, are by the intelligent applications of these technologies. I’m sure, if I were to ask each of you, each of you can find a part in your work or in your life that can benefit and is affected by this question. So, as we think about these emerging technologies and XR is really prime – amongst them, the one that the Department of Labor has thought about, the one that I spent a lot of my time thinking about, what can it mean for a workforce, and what are those innovations? And again, let’s start with the accessibility space where my colleagues have really been leading. Whether it be on neurodiversity, whether it be on physical disabilities, mental health or any other metric, the application of XR can make a huge difference. For those who have difficulty being mobile, that XR can basically create immersive environments where, frankly, they can work with their colleagues without necessarily being next to their colleagues is critical for cultural cohesion, as well as actually doing the work better. Whether it is for folks who may have -be neurodiverse, who may need to see their environments in different ways to get the most out of them is really, really critical. For those who have auditorial or visual disabilities, how it could use a mixed reality, potentially make their world far more accessible than it would be otherwise. That is a huge, huge place where these technologies can make a difference. Secondly, when we think about, again, the application of rural – of XR more broadly, want to think about our Americans who live our a rural communities who may not be next to whether that be that next job or that next opportunity, XR can bridge that distance. So as someone who lives near – in right near the town of Marshall -right near the Marshall University in West Virginia can potentially, one day, through XR, go work at a job in Philadelphia. This is critical to bridging that distance of opportunity that too many Americans can’t really traverse. The last piece, which is really important, about, how do we use innovation for our workforce, is, as we think about the work the Department of Labor does. And the Department of Labor, just as quick 101, we are about $15 billion discretionary budget, about $15,000 -15,000 FTEs spread across this country. We really do three things. We make transparent labor market information. We work to protect workers on the job, and we work to invest in workers through training and benefits. Let’s look at that last function. In that last function, in terms of, “How do we train workers better and more effectively?” you have an opportunity to use XR to revolutionize that. For example, you have companies working in the insurance claims adjusting industry who are using XR to literally mail headsets to folks who want to learn to be claims adjusters. Put those headsets on, and all of a sudden, they’re in a house that’s had a fire, and they will learn, in as close to reality as they can, how to investigate that house, and then when they have concluded that training, they will be assessed through that same XR means so that they can get to work quickly. You have, for those who are working with populations like returning citizens, using XR to basically train them to do things like job interviews, apply for housing, get transportation within the four walls of their confinement so that when they get out, they’re actually ready to hit the ground running. These are ways and innovations that are critical not just to be applied to the general population, but to be applied to those that are, frankly, in the worst and hardest circumstances. So innovation can be used for workforce in ways that they don’t just benefit that segment of the workforce but that benefit all of us. Next, how do we create that workforce for innovation? This is a really important point. If we are going to do the first thing, which is get the innovations to help our workforce, we have to have a workforce to actually populate those innovation industries, and that is XR. I remember once, and I’ll leave the company out, but I remember early in this role, I got to talk to a leader of a company in the XR industry, and the question that I asked was, “Tell me the XR workforce needs over the next 10 years.” And I’ll be honest, a very smart guy, but couldn’t actually give me the answer. This is — Because maybe it was such a nascent industry, and while some people may look at that answer and poo poo it, I actually think that it’s an opportunity. XR has the opportunity to build equitable and effective talent pipelines from scratch versus, like many other industries, having to undo inequitable talent pipelines and build new ones. So thinking about, for example, how we’re making sure that the workforce in this industry looks like America in terms of what customers are you testing these technologies with, and also, who are the designers who are in the room of that technology and of that content? This is a chance for XR to do it right the first time, and quite honestly, I believe XR can be a model for other industries with how to again have those equitable and effective pipelines. Let me say one last thing which is, and it paraphrases a phrase that the president that I serve uses consistently, which is, and particularly when he talks about COVID. He’ll talk about the whole of government approach, meaning everyone rowing in the same direction to achieve that end. I would take that a step further for how we, frankly, get technology to be used for the benefit of every American worker and allow us to get the best out of every American worker for the benefit of our economy [Indistinct] whole of society approach. I come to you as an official from the United States Federal Government, but the United States Federal Government cannot do it by itself. This is going to require all levels of government, all sectors of society to think carefully and clearly about how do we use these technologies to create an economy that includes everyone and that dignifies everyone, and not just because it’s moral, but because it’s smart. In a place where a talent is at a premium, where, literally, we are looking to fill as many jobs as we can as quickly as we can, we don’t have an American to waste. And technology, again, if we all row in that same direction, if we take the whole of society approach, we can, again, create that economy that not only makes us prosperous but that also makes us proud. And so I am so excited and gratified that we are at this conference today, and what I will say is the Department of Labor, my door is always open, and I really encourage you to reach out. I’m probably going to regret this, but, Liz, feel free to share my information for anyone who asks for it, and we want to work with you to create that economy that we have talked about and that we all want. It is an honor to be here today. Thank you so much for inviting me, and I look forward to this being the beginning of great work with all of you in the future.

-Laura: Thank you so much, Chike, for your time and for your important work at the Department of Labor.

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