Futurist > Implications of AI > Reskilling initiatives

How we can frame and design reskilling initiatives for a world driven by AI

Within the next decade, the world will see a major disruption of the workforce due to advances in artificial intelligence (AI) technology. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, 375 million workers, or about 14 percent of the global workforce, may be required to shift occupations as digitization, automation, and AI technologies start to take over the workspace. In a separate 2018 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), half of the global workforce is expected to be impacted one way or another by machine-learning technologies. 

AI technology will be at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and it will prove to be a far greater challenge than the ones that preceded it. If the world does not prepare, robots and technology could cause mass unemployment. There are growing calls for policies such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) in many countries, but it will likely be a supplement to initiatives in reskilling and education.

AI is going to revolutionize many industries and bring great advancements to society. It will push us forward in many ways, but governments and the private sector will need to take bold initiatives. There are a few fundamental aspects that should be part of any approach taken by governments and companies. 

Education: Upskilling and Reskilling

Education will be the foundation of any approach to usher in a period of prosperity rather than massive job loss. There are two main categories of education when it comes to the workplace and AI technology: upskilling and reskilling. Each situation will dictate which one is implemented, but both will be important for preparing workers for a future of AI. 

Upskilling is when employees are taught how to use new tools and practices that help them complete their jobs better or faster. This is different than completely retraining an individual, as they are in many ways building on the skills they already have. Because AI technology will impact almost every industry, upskilling will need to take place everywhere. It will help workers learn new skills, but upskilling will also have to be part of a larger push for constant learning in the workplace, the adoption of a global perspective, and cultural diversity. With the increasing introduction of new technology to the workplace, the skills gap can widen. Upskilling will be crucial in closing that gap. 

Reskilling is a form of education that helps employees make complete career transformations. Unlike upskilling, which builds on a worker’s job, reskilling helps them change jobs entirely by learning new tools and practices. Reskilling will be important in the fields where there is not enough talent for the demand. AI technology will lead to the loss of jobs, but there will also be an increased need in other areas. By focusing on reskilling existing workers when possible, companies can avoid severance, recruiting, and hiring completely new employees due to the shifting work environment.

It has been shown that workers have a strong interest in this area, it is not just coming from the top-down. According to a global report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Decoding Global Talent 2018, many employees and job seekers value learning and training opportunities above job security, financial compensation, and completing interesting work. This means that there will likely be an engaged workforce ready for the transformation due to AI. 

Giving Workers a Seat at the Table

Any approach to solving the problems of automation and technological advancement needs to include workers. Decisions cannot be made by politicians or business leaders alone. According to OECD’s model, “Getting Skills Right: Making adult learning work in social partnership,” there should be a strong relationship between employer organizations and trade unions, which the organization calls social partners. Countries around the globe have varying degrees of social partner involvement when it comes to these systems. 

Source: OECD Policy Questionnaire: Towards resilient and inclusive collective bargaining systems (OECD, 2016, 2018), and OECD Policy Questionnaire: Readiness of Adult Learning Systems to Address Changing Skills Needs (2018).

By working together, social partners can anticipate training needs. Employers have insight into what skills are needed to develop their business, while trade unions know about the skills and training needs of their members. Besides anticipating training needs, social partners can establish joint priorities, negotiate collective agreements, promote a positive learning culture, come up with financing solutions, deliver training, and provide quality assurance to any initiatives. By getting everybody on the same page, social partnerships can help prepare and transition the workforce. 

Government Investment

Government investment will play another key role in many initiatives. The corporate and governmental spaces will have to come together to prepare the workforce, neither one can do it alone. Employees, employers, governments, and educational providers will need to collaborate on learning and education programs. 

The World Economic Forum found that it is in the financial interest of businesses to reskill workers, but what is even more important is cooperation between the public and private sectors. According to the WEF report, “We find that this balance sheet could be significantly extended further through public-private collaboration, such as a pooling of resources or combining of similar reskilling efforts, leading to economies of scale and lowering reskilling costs and times.”

Governments in countries like Singapore are already investing in education to prepare their population for a work environment that relies on technical skills. No matter the nation, government investments are going to have to scale up very quickly. They will be severely limited if only applied to a small sector of the population, which doesn’t cut it when a massive portion of the global workforce is expected to be impacted. 

Many governments around the world are not sufficiently funding initiatives to help workers prepare for a world driven by AI. These programs, along with almost every other aspect of AI research and preparation, need to become a bigger part of government spending. Many of these initiatives take years to really produce results, so action must be taken immediately. If this can be done, the world will be much better prepared for the future of AI. 

Designing and Implementing Initiatives

World Economic Forum also predicts that at least 54% of all employees will require reskilling and upskilling by 2022. For this to be done, it is going to take nothing less than a multifaceted approach by governments, policy makers, business leaders, and workers to design and implement initiatives. 

Public policy will likely play the most significant role in preparing the economy for the major transformation it is about to undertake. There should be a focus on economic incentives so that companies are not tempted to hire all new staff or automate jobs away completely. In 2018, about a quarter of companies were found to be undecided or unliklely to retrain existing employees, and many have indicated that they expect workers to learn on their own. 

Education reform is going to need to take place from top-to-bottom, starting with teaching children new skills in schools. In the long-term, this will prevent the massive need for constant reskilling and upskilling, since individuals will begin preparing for an AI-driven world in their earliest stages of education. In our current times, that education reform will also need to take place for current workers. This is where much of the collaboration between government agencies, industry leaders, and educational institutions will need to take place. There will be strong financial incentives for governments to lead the charge, since the alternative outcome is massive unemployment. 

An example of this collaboration can be seen in the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board in the United States, which was established to bring together leaders from the public and private sectors. The idea is that ambitious initiatives and approaches can be born out of this collaboration, which can provide direction on how the country should move forward in a transparent, worker-focused way.  

When it comes to companies designing and implementing their own initiatives, it will depend on the nature of each business. One of the most common and effective aspects of reskilling and upskilling initiatives within companies is a partnership with educational institutions. Workers are provided with customized online coursework that allows them to continue their current jobs while preparing for the future at the same time. 

Building on this article, we will also shortly share a review of specific inspiring government initiatives as well private reskilling initiatives that address the challenges of AI. By examining these existing initiatives and programs, we can get an idea of what works and what doesn’t, while building a list of models that can be used by governments and companies around the globe. 

It is not long before we have a world driven by AI, and drastic changes are needed to protect workers. By employers and employees working together, government investments, and education through upskilling and reskilling, many of the challenges surrounding AI in the workplace can be addressed. These are the foundation of any approach to prepare workers, and many companies and governments have already started implementing initiatives that we can study and learn from.

Author: Alex McFarland is a journalist who covers developments in AI