AI to necessitate major re-skilling of workforce

13 August 2019 4 min. read

With a growing number of firms turning to artificial intelligence to cut costs and ramp up productivity, the business world is in danger of overlooking the need to up-skill today’s workforce for the labour of tomorrow. According to a new report, while many firms find that technology creates more work than it replaces, it is work that can only be fulfilled by workers with a higher level of training than many currently have.

The continued march of innovative new Artificial Intelligence (AI) has brought with it the potential for improved efficiency of resources, heightened productivity in manufacturing, and even the potential for low-cost medical care in the developing world. However, not all the effects of the new AI revolution are thought of in positive lights – it is set to spark a major realignment of the labour market, and it is unlikely to be as black and white as being a simple increase of decrease of jobs being available.

While some outlying analysis suggests that at current growth rates, AI will only create as few as 19% of the jobs lost due to its implementation, AI is often forecast to necessitate more new jobs than the old ones it replaces. However, a developing consensus also suggests that this will require huge amounts of time and resources, as well as a level of co-ordination of state and market not presently seen, to adequately up-skill the workforce to meet the demands of new digital roles.

Current applications of AI and automation

A new report from PA Consulting has further outlined this, and shown that. 32% of organisations have invested in AI and automation in the last five years, but at the same time, only a quarter of these firms saw a reduction in jobs, while a larger 35% saw AI and automation increase the number of jobs at their companies. While this broadly would suggest a modest surplus of jobs being created by AI, however, the new roles which redundant workers will need to fill require a notably different skill-set.

As a result of this, PA’s survey found that 43% of employees now spend more time on learning new things thanks to AI and auto. The issue is that this is unlikely to be enough in the long-term. According to another study by McKinsey & Company, while less than 5% of jobs could eventually be entirely replaced by technology, over 60% of all work activities could be in some manner automated by 2055, meaning the majority of workers will need to be digitally savvy by then, or risk struggling to find work.

Such a realignment of labour will not only be confined to blue-collar work. AI is often thought of as phasing out manual work, with robotic process automation, or supply chain work, with automated warehouses and self-driving vehicles, but the truth is that AI is already increasingly being leveraged by professional services firms to find solutions with less need for costly human input. AI is being used for fast translations and automated document analysis for admin work, while chatbots are reducing customer service roles and Service and product innovation is being used to help form business strategy.

Skills levels of jobs created and replaced by AI

Indeed, according to PA’s research, of the jobs created, 39% will be high skilled work, compared to just 10% lower skilled work. Of the jobs eliminated or replaced by AI, 29% will still come from high skill work, but 44% of them will be lower skilled positions. With the majority of new roles created being high skilled, followed by 27% which will be ‘a range of skill levels’, the re-training of a huge swathe of the working population is essential now if the national and global markets are to avoid large levels of unemployment, and a lack of talent to meet the demands of digitalised business.

Speaking on the findings, report authors Katharine Henley and Jennifer Cable said, “Organisations are increasingly turning to new technologies to reduce costs, increase revenues and improve the quality of goods and services. But there’s much more to making a success of emerging technology than plugging it in and switching it on. Success hinges on the human factor. By connecting their workforce to these new technologies, business leaders and HR professionals can create more jobs, not less, provide more interesting roles and unleash the ingenuity of their people.”

Accompanying the research, PA also issued a series of recommendations for businesses to help succeed in digitalisation efforts. The firm insisted that companies must shape a people strategy for AI and automation, working with operations and technology leaders to consider how the workforce will need to change to work effectively alongside machines. At the same time, while conveying the positive benefits of new technologies around wellbeing and personal development, organisations should plan and provide training and support for employees to ensure learning keeps pace with technology, evolving skills needed for success.