Jill Watson is an unpaid teaching assistant at Georgia Institute of Technology 1. An AI-based chatbot, she is an example of academia’s shift from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to individualized instruction. As such, the next generation workforce will be trained to adapt to the ever-changing role of technology in the workplace, with AI already being used by Tesla, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. But what happens to those already in the workplace?
AI is changing the way that we work and live: entire professions are disappearing and being replaced with new ones. At one point, our degrees offered us the skills we would need for 50 years of work. However, as machines get smarter and work harder, our skills are more rapidly becoming outdated, and we are forced to adapt to an almost constant need to update our work skills.
As the way we are being educated is shifting, so is the way we are working, both of which have been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A McKinsey report on the future of work after COVID-19 found that two-thirds of senior executives were increasing their investment in AI technology in response to the pandemic.” 2
There are recruitment shortages in technology, human services, healthcare and some teaching occupations, and it is anticipated that these will grow. In bridging the gap between workers who are being trained for the future ever-shifting needs of business and industry and people who are already in the workforce but may not have the same skills, it will be critical to find solutions so that the current workforce remains relevant.
Companies will have to choose from a range of different strategies: retraining employees so that they can learn new skills, redeploying employees to different roles that match their current skillset, hiring new workers who already have the skills, contracting outsiders who know how do the necessary jobs or laying off workers entirely 3. We are already starting to see some of these layoffs with Microsoft News replacing dozens of journalists with AI in 2020 4.
Machines: Competitors or Coworkers?
As far as coworking with machines goes, it is expected that humans and machines will share more and more tasks. A 2020 report by the World Economic Forum found that 43% of businesses are planning to reduce their workforce through technology integration, and 34% plan to expand their workforce 5. McKinsey’s 2019 report on automation’s impact on women and minorities indicated that Black workers are especially vulnerable to this shift in the labor force, holding a disproportionate number of jobs that are likely to be replaced by automation and AI. To keep their jobs, they will need to be reskilled or upskilled using company resources 6.
As shown by the Microsoft News layoffs, AI can also eliminate roles in a highly skilled workforce: In September of 2020, a robot named GPT-3 wrote an op-ed for The Guardian called ‘A robot wrote this entire article – are you scared yet, human?’ 7. With technology now mastering even creative professions, human workers may have to compete with, or learn how to cowork with AI.
Our Ever-Shifting Roles
Overall, the best solution for the needs of workers is for employers to take on the cost of upskilling their labor. It may be challenging to convince the C-suite to do it. Although European employment law requires that companies find ways to retrain their employees whenever possible, only 62% of US executives thought it was more important to retrain workers than to hire new ones 8.
Yet, some companies have committed to reskilling their employees. In 2019, JP Morgan Chase announced a collaboration with Massachusetts Institute for Technology to invest USD 350 million in the upskilling of their employees through technology-focused training programs that build on the current strengths of their employees 9. In 2019, AT&T launched a USD 1 billion initiative to retrain nearly half of its workforce to help them become future-ready 10.
“Upskilling and reskilling are not just strategies for employee retention. They are part of a corporate wellness strategy.”
In a Myers-Briggs report on corporate wellness, employees indicated that their most highly-rated work activities that increase wellbeing include ‘undertaking challenging work that adds to their skills and knowledge’ 11. Corporations could leverage AI assistance as education is doing, identifying current employee assets and preparing them for future changes.
Employers can take a lesson from Jill. She was not created to take the jobs of the professors and the teaching assistants but she allows the real assistants to focus on the more subtle and complex questions. The AI systems can easily handle the repetitive tasks and relieve the monotony that is stressful to humans. They ensure that the best answer is given and do not make mistakes or forget. When we stop thinking of AI as competition and adapt to working smarter with the support of AI coworkers, the workplace of the future may not seem as threatening.
Nia Norris is a journalist in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Ms, Romper, and Next City among other publications.
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