To Prepare for Automation, Stay Curious and Don’t Stop Learning
Earlier this year, President Trump signed an executive order for the “American AI Initiative,” to guide AI developments and investments in the following areas: research and development, ethical standards, automation, and international outreach. This initiative is indicative of the changing times, and how, as a country, the U.S. is learning to navigate the implications of AI. Leaders in the business world, specifically, are faced with the responsibility of equipping our employees with the skills necessary for paving long-lasting career paths, and the workforce must discover what will be expected as technology continues to disrupt the norm, and work as we know it.
As a global business leader, an AI optimist, and a father, I find myself asking: What will make a career sustainable in 2020 and beyond? Will the future of education rise to meet the demands of the future of work? I support the growing movement to build a nationwide, future-oriented workforce founded on sustainable careers — but for this goal to be achieved, there is more work that needs to be done.
For the American workforce to thrive throughout the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there are three key things that need to happen:
- America will need to invest in new avenues of education and adopt a commitment to approaching education flexibly;
- Executives will need to be better about “walking the walk” when it comes to reskilling existing employees whose current roles are destined to change;
- As a country, we need to better invest in our educational system while simultaneously embracing a culture of continuous and life-long learning.
Empathy vs. automation: not mutually exclusive
With all-things-digital on the rise, many college courses are focused on honing one’s “hard-tech skills” — but in the Age of AI, curricula also need to expand to better equip future employees with the human skills their careers will be built on. As manual tasks become more automated and humans shift to embrace more dynamic roles, educators and business leaders alike need to constantly ask: what skills — both “hard” and “soft” — will define success in a workplace that is becoming increasingly virtual and increasingly driven by technology?
Several universities have begun incorporating AI into their programs — from digital assistants, to AI-centred fields of study, and even automated teaching assistants. And yet, future jobs will require more than just technological fluency. Consider a study produced by business experts Nathan and Roberta Sawatzky that found that there will continue to be a premium put on areas of emotional intelligence in the job market, such as communication, self-direction, trustworthiness, discipline, initiative, flexibility, and self-efficacy. Empathy is notably an area where AI is lacking, which is why we will always need human workers with strong “soft skills” to bring the human touch, thoughtfulness, and consciousness to the workplace. How can these aptitudes be measured, and how can we adjust classrooms to better instil these sensitivities in the next generation of workers? Asking ourselves these questions will be essential in driving the collaborative solutions necessary to evolve traditional education.
We can no longer approach education with a one-size-fits-all model
As CEOs, we, too, need to reinforce a refreshed approach to education, including making vocational training opportunities available within our own companies. In March, the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board met at the White House to determine how to “develop and implement a strategy to revamp the American workforce to better meet the challenges of the 21st century.” I was especially happy to see that one of the proposed solutions included increased funding for vocational schools and apprenticeship programs. Given the high number of college graduates in recent years, there is absolutely a reciprocal need for vocational training in areas that contribute to the basic functions of society, such as mechanics, electronics, computer control systems, machining, and pneumatics. While traditional academia is certainly a privilege and an asset, apprenticeships offer hands-on experience to those who may not feel drawn to a college career. The fact is, there are various degrees of learning; a traditional four-year university degree might not be for everyone, and that’s okay. Technical training may not only be the right fit for certain individuals, but it’s also the smart alternative for our macro workforce as jobs and skills continue to shift.
The workforce of the future will rely on complementary skill sets. There will absolutely be a need for both college learning and vocational training. Yet, while Career and Technical Education (CTE) is making a comeback, trade schools and blue-collar jobs often come with unwarranted stigmas. This is especially true for those who grew up with the mantra “stay in school,” believing that the path to success is formulaic, starting with a high school degree, followed by college, and sometimes supplemented by graduate school and specialised degrees for a more competitive edge. On the other hand, a “dual training” education model, combining classroom courses and hands-on experience, can be just as fulfilling and lucrative as a post-grad career.
In 2014, less than 5% of young Americans were training as apprentices, compared to 60% of young people in Germany. Leaders at both the government and C-suite level must be better about endorsing technical education and we mustn’t perpetuate the stigmas that attempt to devalue this extremely valuable work. American society should underscore and support the importance of diverging career paths, and business leaders should consider how to create opportunities for vocational training within their businesses. In the wise words of Nicholas Lyman, CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation (IWSI America), “apprenticeships match training to real needs, assure a pipeline of can-do people, keep pace with changes in technology, and provide a positive return on investment.”
Executives need to become reskilling educators
Changing the face of education will certainly empower entry-level employees for the flexible roles of the future, but what does “revamping” the American workforce mean for those who have been hard at work for years? In addition to extending opportunities for technical training to those entering the workforce, the C-suite leaders of today need to commit to opportunities for displaced workers as a first choice for strengthening our companies.
Corporate executives equally need to share the responsibility in assisting workers in adopting new skill sets that will allow for greater employee retention in the long-run. Many senior executives have expressed confidence in their progress in providing reskilling programs, but there remains a fundamental disconnect between how employees feel they are being reskilled and how employers perceive the way they are reskilling their employees. We need to close this gap. It’s as simple as that. Employers need to offer reskilling and training programs in such a way and in such volume that employees see those programs as real and accessible to them. Further, employees must feel and understand that these training programs offer them an opportunity for career growth.
While it can sound daunting to consider, we can actually generate active engagement around reskilling. If, as executives, we are invested in real reskilling initiatives — new internal education programs which enable employees to discover their skills, identify gaps, and hone their potential through customised knowledge paths and plans — employees will be more effectively and efficiently prepared to be placed in new positions. In my opinion, these positions will be focused on up-levelling workers to higher-value-add roles. I believe executives will find that employees are ready for this — in fact, they are demanding it, with study after study showing that businesses aren’t keeping pace with workers’ desires to learn, especially when it comes to AI.
A call for curiosity: company- and country-wide
As automation inevitably eliminates human hands in manual and monotonous business processes, it’s my belief that the role of employees will be defined by an evolved skill set and an open mindset. Many are used to honing skills that will guarantee a long career path in a single given area, but this ideology must be future-proofed. It’s our shared responsibility to gear the workforce away from the narrow-focused career path and toward a more evolved career lifespan.
German society celebrates “life-long learning” — what I call continuous curiosity. Education doesn’t stop at a degree; businesses built for longevity are those that cultivate a culture of continuous learning. It is human instinct to ask questions — what, how, why — and though adulthood often teaches us to stifle these wonderings, inquisitiveness is key in an innovative world. The last thing executives want is for employees to become robotic themselves, so it is crucial that we nurture this instinct to be inquisitive. I am confident when I say that successful reskilling will be driven first and foremost by human curiosity.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require us to re-learn the best practices for learning. Education, from traditional four-year colleges, to technical training, to reskilling, will be as fluid as the roles we are preparing for. Executives, we need to continue to have these important conversations about the various ways to educate the workforce, including establishing opportunities for vocational training and prioritising reskilling initiatives built on a genuine culture of curiosity. And American workers, don’t wait for leaders to help you learn what’s to come — there are plenty of ways to teach yourself about the technologies that will continue to define the future of work. Staying curious will help you stay ahead of the learning curve and allow you to have access to new opportunities in the evolving business world. Prioritising your own continuous re-education not only gives you an edge in the world of today but assures your relevance in the world of tomorrow.
Author: Tiger Tyagarajan is the CEO of Genpact, a global professional services firm focused on delivering digital transformation. He frequently writes and speaks about education, global talent issues, continuous skill development, digital disruption, and the importance of building a strong corporate culture.