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Is AI-Proofing Possible?

Microsoft and the AFL-CIO have ambitious plans to boost workers’ AI literacy, amid lots of uncertainty.

A look at what’s possible when it comes to “future-proofing” workers around artificial intelligence, including a Microsoft and AFL-CIO partnership that may be the largest single effort to boost AI literacy in the country. Also, the White House has gone all in on hiring apprentices for federal jobs.

Can We ‘AI-Proof’ Workers?

Go to an education or workforce conference and all anybody is talking about is generative AI. Work Shift was at SXSW EDU this week doing just that. But while the tech is already making some marks on education and work, its transformative impacts lie further down the road.

How far? Eighteen months? Five years? A decade? Nobody knows for sure. 

The Big Idea: What is clear is that “AI adoption is not a smooth, linear process,” writes Brent Orrell, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

He and his colleague David Veldran are out with a new report that looks at predictions around artificial intelligence, including robotics, machine learning, and generative AI, starting circa 2010. Many observers were warning of a “jobless future” even back then. 

Yet, here we sit in 2024, and unemployment is near all-time lows. Indeed, Orrell and Veldran’s review of the existing research found that—while people may be doing different kinds of work now—AI thus far has had a limited impact on employment itself no matter a worker’s education level. They found a strong consensus in the research, however, that jobs have increasingly valued “human” or durable skills like communication, problem-solving, and creative thinking.

Will that trend continue with the rise of generative AI?

After all, the tech can whip up a twisted chocolate chip cookie recipe, do a better job of communicating than some customer service reps, and create a shockingly realistic Tokyo street scene. And that’s upended old predictions of what kinds of jobs will be most vulnerable to AI.

“The consensus prediction, if we rewind seven or 10 years, was that the impact was going to be blue-collar work first, white-collar work second, creativity maybe never, but certainly last, because that was magic and human,” Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, said in a recent podcast episode with Bill Gates. “Obviously, it’s gone exactly the other direction.”

That unpredictability makes it hard for workers, employers, and educators to prepare for what’s next.

“Some relevant education and educational material just can't exist yet because we just don't have the data,” says Ben Armstrong, co-director of MIT’s Working Group on Generative AI and the Work of the Future. “This is like teaching people about the impact and best practices of mRNA vaccines while the trials are still going.”

For their part, Orrell and Veldran posit that durable skills will, in fact, prove durable—though they also make it clear that nobody yet knows what will be needed in the age of AI. Aneesh Raman, vice president and workforce expert at LinkedIn, and Maria Flynn, president of Jobs for the Future, made a similar argument recently in The New York Times.

Amid so much uncertainty, Orrell and Veldran write, the most valuable skills we may need to teach are how to constantly learn and adapt.

Who Gets a Say?

The cool news is that we humans have a big say in how this plays out. Tech executives controlling the development and rollout of AI may be in the catbird seat—but governments across the globe, employers, and workers are lining up to have their say.

Indeed, a recent report from Oxford Economics and Cognizant, a global tech company, makes clear how much hinges on employer adoption. Even in the report’s most bullish scenario, only 13% of businesses are expected to adopt AI in the next three to four years. 

  • But that could jump to almost half of all companies in 10 years.

  • That would mean almost 52% of workers would be highly exposed to the impacts of AI, and 90% would be at least somewhat.

Worker Voice: As reporter Margaret Moffett writes this week for Work Shift, the nation’s largest federation of labor unions and its 12M members have pulled up a seat at the table. Back in December, the AFL-CIO inked a partnership with Microsoft that will give workers more of a say in how artificial intelligence impacts their jobs. 

The two groups pledged to collaborate on worker-centered AI design and policies on ethics and skill development. Moffett dug into what that might mean. She reports that the partnership has the potential to become the largest single effort to boost AI literacy in the U.S. workforce.

Alex Swartsel, a managing director at Jobs for the Future who’s leading the organization’s Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work, told Moffett the effort could lay critical groundwork that allows workers to both adapt and shape their futures.

The Kicker: “Hopefully it will lead to not just more people having access to these skills, but to better technology, which is what we all need and will benefit from down the road,” Swartsel says. —By Elyse Ashburn

Feds Go All In on Hiring Apprentices

The federal government was an early leader in the skills-based hiring movement—dropping four-year degree requirements for lots of jobs in 2020, well before many of the large companies and states that have done the same. Now, it’s out front on hiring apprentices.

The Details: The White House issued an executive order yesterday that will prioritize apprenticeships in federal hiring. Among other things, it directs agencies to:

  • Identify the top occupations, especially hard-to-fill roles, that could be staffed through apprenticeships.

  • Develop ways to upskill current federal employees and help them move into new roles through apprenticeship.

  • Explore offering incentives, such as preferential consideration for federal contracts, to contractors and grantees who hire through apprenticeships.

Agencies are expected to tap existing programs and funding to make most of this happen. The work will be coordinated by an interagency working group, which is required to make recommendations within the next six months.

The Big Idea: As both the country’s largest employer, with about 3.5M active workers, and its largest purchaser of services, the federal government could more than move the needle on apprenticeship.

“From a hiring perspective, it’s huge,” says Patrick Combs, vice president of the Center for Apprenticeship & Work-Based Learning at Jobs for the Future. “From a signaling perspective, it’s incredibly important because it shows the labor market and the broader market that apprenticeships are really a key way to get talent.

“It validates it not as a secondary system, but as an equal system.”

The Department of Defense is already among the nation’s leaders in hiring through apprenticeship, but that’s far from the norm across the federal workforce, says John Colborn, executive director of Apprenticeships for America, an association of apprenticeship intermediaries.

“At other agencies, we really don’t see that level of penetration,” he says. “It really is at the onesie-twosie level, a few here and there.”

Potential Impact: With the new executive order, it’s reasonable to expect those numbers to grow well into the thousands, both Colborn and Combs say. And with contractors in the mix, the growth could be game-changing for a system that currently serves only 650K active apprentices each year.

“If a company now has a better chance of winning a federal contract because they are using registered apprenticeships in their talent pool, that could mean this grows at a more systemic pace,” Combs says.

The federal government’s support for apprenticeship has been growing across the past two administrations and during the current one. And Combs suspects the tipping point for this particular move was a combination of the political and the pragmatic: The White House sees nondegree hiring as good policy, and the federal government, which was long seen as a highly desirable employer, is now struggling to compete with the private sector to fill critical jobs.

The Kicker: “They finally needed to think about how to hire differently,” Combs says. “Their own system that they created in 1937 is sitting there ready for them to use.” —By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

AI and Online Training
Accenture has acquired Udacity as part of its $1B launch of an “AI-native” learning platform. The new Accenture LearnVantage will offer training in technology, data, and AI. The professional services firm is spending $3B to advise companies on AI and to double its own AI workforce to 80K employees. Terms of the deal to buy Udacity, the online education platform and early MOOC player, were not disclosed.

Public-Private Partnership
A new workforce alliance in Maine includes defense contractors, the state’s community colleges and universities, state agencies, and the U.S. Navy. It seeks to attract and train thousands of new employees for jobs in Maine’s defense industrial base. The companies and their subcontractors must significantly ramp up hiring during the next five years. An initial $5M grant from the Navy will back manufacturing programs at York County Community College.

Economic Mobility
Roughly 1.4M workers at the nation’s largest companies each year move into jobs that pay middle-class wages—including an estimated total of 7.1M U.S. workers from 2018 to 2022, according to an analysis from the Business Roundtable and the Burning Glass Institute. Workers who start their careers at large companies earn an approximately 5% greater salary over the course of their careers than those starting at small and medium-size employers.

AI and Jobs
Singapore is offering all of its citizens over the age of 40 a $4K grant for a “substantive skills reboot” to help them stay relevant as AI drives changes to the economy and jobs. The new SkillsFuture Credit can be used for roughly 7K courses aimed at upskilling and reskilling. It joins a $500 grant that all Singaporeans over age 25 can tap for skills training. The program is part of a government goal to make lifelong learning a national priority.

Credential Data
To better make sense of nondegree credentials and the value they can provide, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics should convene a cross-statistical agency work group to share research and agree on common terminology for credentials, recommends a report from Chris Mullin, strategy director of data and measurement for the Lumina Foundation.

Latinos in Tech
Latino adults remain vastly underrepresented in tech jobs and college programs, which holds back economic mobility and diversity in the industry, according to a new report from the Kapor Foundation. Almost 1 in 5 American workers is Latino, but only 1 in 10 tech workers is. The one bright spot: Latino workers’ participation in registered tech apprenticeships has soared in the past five years, and they now hold 16% of those roles.

Career-Connected Learning
The 15 new winners of the Catalyze Challenge will receive a total of $3.3M for career-connected learning. The grant recipients include those experimenting with career exploration for young people (RevX and the Hidden Genius Project) and partnering with employers on career paths (Project Success and Escalate). A regional version of the challenge awarded $720K to five nonprofits in Birmingham, Ala., including United Ability.

Cognizant, whose research is mentioned in this issue, is a supporter of Work Shift. You can read our policy on editorial independence here.

Paul is at SXSW EDU this week, launching Work Shift’s new podcast, The Cusp, which will focus on AI’s impact on education and work. Thanks for reading, and he’ll be back next week. —Elyse Ashburn