Jobs and the Future of Work

How to build the skills needed for the age of AI

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AI means seeing in a whole new skillset for workers Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Juliana Guaqueta Ospina
Education Specialist, International Finance Corporation
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Emerging Technologies

  • AI is changing how we work and what skills workers need to thrive in a world of intelligent machines and cognitive computing.
  • Only a sliver of education initiatives are devoted to AI and these are not yet integrated into most education systems.
  • Collaborative initiatives between education and industry can accelerate the transition to a greener, more efficient and inclusive world where jobs and skills development pathways are readily available.

New technologies can be exciting and disruptive at the same time. Over the past few years, no innovation has been more contentious than artificial intelligence (AI). It is changing the way we think about when, where and how we work and what skills workers need to thrive in a world of intelligent machines and cognitive computing. But it comes with a colossal caveat. How will it affect jobs and livelihoods? And, what steps can we take now to futureproof our workforces and equip them with the skills and know-how they’ll need to succeed in a more digital, automated and fast-paced jobs market?

Job displacement – or job reconfiguration – is a primary concern. Labour-intensive work, such as assembling electronics or automobiles, handling materials and overseeing supply chains – careers that employ tens of millions of workers, which are critical to the economies of many developing countries – will certainly be impacted as AI-powered activities, such as quality control and robotics, replace some jobs. Knowledge-based workers in industries such as banking, marketing, and human resources may already need to skill-up to coexist with sophisticated technologies for financial analysis, algorithmic trading, predictive analytics and software development.

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AI will massively impact the workforce

The IMF recently estimated that almost 40% of jobs will be impacted by AI. This effect varies by a country’s income level, however. About 60% of jobs in advanced economies may be impacted by AI, while exposure in emerging markets is 40% and in low-income countries it's 26%. While the near-term disruptions from AI are lower in emerging and developing economies, there is also a risk that workers in these countries miss out on the potential benefits.

The ramifications of AI’s deployment reaches well beyond job disruption. Advanced economies are embracing AI more rapidly than in the developing world, posing challenges for emerging economies, where insufficient skills and a lack of familiarity with essential innovative technologies could hinder progress. Already there are hints that a deficit of technically skilled workers in some countries is discouraging investment in the supply chains for important industries, such as EV battery manufacturing and assembly. Left unaddressed, the north-south skills chasm will widen, potentially exacerbating income inequality, limiting some economies from high-value opportunities and enflaming a host of other problems that can spill over borders.

It is now a given that workers – almost anywhere and in almost any job – need to be more proficient in technical and digital skills than ever before. Even while some jobs may be displaced, demand for technicians, technologists and engineers is steadily rising. In a recent survey of stakeholders in Ontario’s automotive industry, two-thirds of respondents identified a “lack of appropriate education and training options” for students and recent graduates as a main reason for expected future skills shortages. More than half of respondents identified “a lack of reskilling and retraining options for current workers” as another challenge. The gaps in emerging markets are likely to be similar or worse.

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Education must not play catch up with AI

That reality is reflected in the fast-growing education market, which is anticipated to be worth more than $7 trillion by 2027. Today, only a sliver of education initiatives and investments are devoted to emerging technologies such as machine learning, cognitive computing, robotics and next-generation systems, and these are not yet integrated into education systems at large. Traditional education or edtech products alone, however, are not going to cut it. With the pace of technological innovation today, applied technical training, lifelong learning programmes and continuous upskilling are necessary to equip workers with the ability to understand and operate evolving technologies and business models and, ultimately, to stay gainfully employed.

Policy-makers need to prioritize skills-based training with the AI-infused economy in mind. Successful economies from the past, such as Germany, South Korea, Singapore and Japan, offer valuable lessons. These countries emphasized engineering excellence, technical innovation and robust technical training to propel their economies, improve the employability of workers and provide the skills needed to compete in the global economy. They created skills frameworks and incentivized companies to invest in training. The results are well known.

Reskilling requires collaboration between stakeholders

In the age of AI, industry participation and collaborative approaches are critical for narrowing the gap between traditional tertiary education and the reality of work. Workers need hands-on experience with state-of-the-art technologies. Educators and education institutions need to reimagine pathways and craft learning programmes that align with the technical and practical reality of today’s job market. In some cases, traditional educational credentials and formats must be reimagined and updated. All stakeholders need to collaborate to identify new skill requirements and create sustainable models to upskill and reskill workers at scale and fast.

By forging partnerships and investing in human capital, emerging and developing economies can grow out of poverty and transition into more vibrant, equitable and modern economies. The International Finance Corporation can help. We have deep expertise and have invested more than $2.4 billion in education in emerging markets. We are large investors in high-employment industries, like manufacturing, agribusiness, pharma and healthcare. And, we have decades of experience mobilizing resources and convening stakeholders to create systemic solutions. We are committed to identifying and supporting scalable training solutions that align with the skills needs of emerging markets.

Nurturing human capital is essential for a prosperous future. New approaches for rapid and continuous upskilling and reskilling are needed. Online learning platforms, micro-credentials and collaborative initiatives between educational institutions and industry can support this effort and accelerate the transition to a greener, more efficient and inclusive world where jobs and skills development pathways are readily available.

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Jobs and the Future of WorkEmerging Technologies
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