Who Will Train the Skills for Tomorrow’s AI Workforce?

Article main image
May 20, 2019

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes mainstream, organizations will need a blend of human and technical skills, but how will HR professionals identify candidates in the new digital economy?

Like robotics, AI skills are becoming extremely important, with two types emerging — skills to help build machines and skills to collaborate with them. Yet, according to a recent study from Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, businesses and higher education institutions estimate that only about one quarter of their staff and students have the skills to work with digital technologies. Business leaders and educators have been slow to adopt future of work learning programs and educational approaches, and each seems to believe the other is responsible for preparing individuals for the future of work.

Technical careers developing robotics and AI are a given, but it will be equally important that every employee in an organization be able to interact with its AI systems to exploit AI’s full potential. At Singapore’s Changi Airport Terminal 4, for example, the airport implemented facial recognition capabilities in its automated check-in and boarding systems and high-resolution X-ray into its baggage checks. Jobs did not disappear, but the nature of jobs changed. Airport staff now spend more time guiding and assisting travelers, as well as attending to and overseeing the automated machines.

As the future of work unfolds, what makes us human is what will make us employable. Attributes like adaptability, flexibility, self-motivation, empathy, creativity, curiosity and communication skills will become even more relevant across all areas of the organization. HR should place a premium on candidates with these attributes, but evaluating these “soft” skills is a challenge.

Unfortunately, while 80% of businesses surveyed consider human skills important, only 46% of higher education institutions do, making it imperative that businesses proactively encourage and develop soft skills in their workforce. Role modeling, mentoring, creating work environments that prioritize and celebrate human skills or even leveraging psychologists to conduct skill assessments can help identify and develop soft skills while enabling employees to see their role in the larger context of the organization. That said, the work of the future won’t so much be about “beating the bots” as it will be about being better humans in the digital economy — and that’s going to be a tough change to make.

Ethics will become a core skill

Ethics as a skill will become key, since unknown consequences resulting from AI failures or mishaps will require highly skilled professionals to build trust by ensuring the integrity, security, objectivity and proper use of AI-driven machines. Ethics will also become a core skill for data science and big data roles to help ensure AI applications and systems are free from bias.

There are no clear guidelines around who bears responsibility for inappropriate behavior of a machine; however, ethics-related issues can have a huge impact on a company’s brand, finances and reputation. Without industry standard guidelines, companies need to develop a self-control for ethics. This gives HR a unique opportunity to develop job descriptions for ethics professionals whose mission is to develop and instill an AI ethics code.

HR can bring a perspective to stakeholders across all areas of the business by identifying the skillsets that will be required, proactively creating new job descriptions, and developing plans to address talent needs. Cognizant’s 21 Jobs of the Future whitepaper and subsequent 21 More Jobs of the Future whitepaper explore potential new jobs that are expected to emerge over the next decade. From Data Detective to Man-Machine Teaming Manager to Genetic Diversity Officer, these jobs are not science-fiction, as HR departments will have to fill them before very long.

AT&T’s upskilling initiative

As organizations transform to a hybrid, man-machine environment, reskilling the existing workforce is critical to ensuring they have enough of the right talent in the organization. AT&T initiated a massive reskilling effort after determining that nearly half of its 250,000 employees lacked the necessary science, engineering, technology and math skills needed to keep the company competitive. The initiative is a $1 billion web-based, multi-year effort that includes online courses; collaborations with Coursera, Udacity and leading universities; and a career center that allows employees to identify and train for the kinds of jobs the company needs today and in the future.

Training is as important for leaders as it is the overall workforce. Nearly three-quarters of businesses surveyed say they are concerned their leaders lack the skills needed to work with digital technologies. If leaders are not equipped to understand and train people on the necessary skills, they can hardly expect more from their workforce. Leaders need to reinvent themselves first and create a culture of learning that will attract and retain top talent. HR can play a significant role in defining new leadership training programs and identifying the skills leaders need for the new machine age.

Aviva asked its workers

Driving the kind of change needed for organizations to successfully adapt demands that learning and development be a boardroom priority. The stakes are high — and HR should have a seat at the table. Insurer Aviva employed a unique strategy. The company released a note to its 16,000 workers in the UK saying, “If you think your job could be automated, we want to know. If we agree, we’ll retrain you for another role at the firm.” The strategy gained employees’ trust and provided a competitive advantage over businesses that try to find scarce talent externally.

The future of HR jobs is in enhancement. At the heart of enhancement is the simple idea that nearly every person and job can and must be improved through technology. HR leaders must take advantage of AI tools and technologies to enhance their teams as well as their own role.

AI helps Unilever recruit

Consumer goods giant, Unilever, is enhancing the recruiter’s role and it’s been a huge success. Instead of sending representatives to elite universities, collecting resumes, and arranging follow-up phone interviews for the students that stuck out, Unilever is leveraging AI to completely digitize the first steps of the process. Candidates spend some 20 minutes playing neuroscience-based games online to measure inherent traits and have recorded interviews analyzed by AI. If candidates pass the AI screening, they then go through an in-person screening that determines if they get the job. As a result of this initiative, a recruiter’s time spent on applications was decreased by 75% and the average hiring time went from four months to four weeks.

Who is to do the teaching?

Still, a disconnect remains between businesses and educators as to who is ultimately responsible for the future of learning. Most businesses report that the graduates they hire lack the required technical and soft skills needed to succeed. HR needs to play a critical and proactive role by collaborating more effectively with higher education institutions to ensure students are prepared to enter the workforce. In addition, businesses will bear more of the burden of learning.

While 43% of business surveyed update their learning content every year or two, higher education institutions only update every two to six years. Preparing the workforce for the future of work is a matter of survival, and it will take businesses and educators working together to manage the disruptive transformative of the future of work.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay