Three big questions about AI and the future of work and learning

AI is set to transform education and work today and well into the future. We need to start asking tough questions right now, writes Alex Swartsel of JFF.

Organizations and companies are racing to better understand—and get ahead of—the ways in which artificial intelligence will reshape how we learn, how we work, and the jobs we’ll have. And while widely-accessible platforms like ChatGPT give individual users new power to discover and innovate with AI, for the vast majority of learners and workers, these tools still seem like something from science fiction. 

Alex Swartsel, head of the Center for AI and the Future of Work at JFF

A recent poll from Jobs for the Future (JFF) and Morning Consult found that fewer than 1 in 10 workers currently experience AI in their jobs. At the same time, 58% of workers believe they need to gain new skills to prepare for the impacts of AI—and 34% feel they need to do so within the next year. And although 54% of adults would feel more prepared for AI’s future impact if they had learning tools for it, more than eight in 10 respondents did not yet trust their employers to understand AI technologies or provide that training.

There’s a profound opportunity for employers, postsecondary institutions, and leaders across the education-to-career continuum to step up to ensure that workers and learners are prepared for the ways in which AI will transform education and work—not just today, but for years ahead. Since launching JFF’s Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work, three big questions have emerged as we explore how to ensure that an AI-powered future accelerates, rather than delays, equitable access to quality jobs.

How will AI reshape jobs, and how can we prepare all workers and learners with the skills they’ll need? 

It’s increasingly clear that AI will reshape jobs, not outright replace them—but that impact will still be widespread and not be felt equally. Some reports estimate that AI could impact nearly 300 million jobs globally, and contribute to the automation of up to 30% of the hours worked in the U.S. economy. McKinsey’s recent analysis starts to dig into the different ways AI will impact different jobs—augmenting work in STEM, creative, and business fields while automating more work in customer support or food service.

And Revelio Labs found that of the 10 million people employed in the 15 jobs that overlap most with generative AI’s capabilities, 71% are women and 33% are people of color. As companies raise the hiring bar for certain roles, looking to hire talent with knowledge of AI principles and experience using different tools, it’s critical that we work now to ensure all learners can build AI literacy starting early and that workers have AI-focused upskilling opportunities throughout their careers.

While it’s exciting to imagine the potential benefits from AI in the workplace, it’s critical to understand its full impact—or else, rapid technological advances could continue, or worsen, existing racial, gender, and ethnic gaps in achievement, employment, or wealth. That means better understanding how jobs are emerging or evolving due to AI. This includes talking directly with workers to understand how they’re using (or being asked to use) AI and to craft policies that set clear, protective guard rails and encourage creativity and experimentation. It means tracking the new and future-proof skills—especially human and interpersonal skills—that will be increasingly important for all jobs. And it means supporting employers, training providers, and workforce intermediaries to make upskilling opportunities accessible to everyone. 

How can education and workforce leaders equitably adopt AI platforms to accelerate their impact? 

We already see an emerging renaissance of AI-enabled tools—from personalized tutoring to assessments to skills-based marketplaces—that promise to address thorny, longstanding challenges across the education and workforce landscape. Whether they can deliver depends a lot on the groundwork we lay now. 

Here, too, big questions come to the forefront—including how to efficiently vet and select AI tools that are inclusively designed and deployed responsibly, how to make sure the needs of populations experiencing barriers to advancement are not overlooked, and how to lift up AI entrepreneurs and innovators who share the lived experiences of the workers and learners their solutions are designed to support.

How might we catalyze sustainable policy, practice, and investment in solutions that drive economic opportunity? 

Finally, and most importantly, as AI reshapes both the economy and society, we must collectively call for better data, increased accountability, and more flexible support for workers. Businesses, postsecondary institutions, and other organizations navigating this AI transition will need to align expectations of responsibility, transparency, and equity. These efforts will be everyone’s responsibility, and must be informed not just by technological developments, but also by the clear voices of learners and workers.

We see huge potential to leverage AI for equitable economic advancement—and equally huge potential to exacerbate existing inequities. However, if AI is thoughtfully developed, deployed, and used, it can dramatically accelerate progress towards equitable economic advancement—but only if all voices are at the table shaping solutions. That’s the work ahead of all of us. 

Alex Swartsel is managing director of the Insights practice at JFFLabs and leads JFF’s new Center for AI and the Future of Work.

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