Can Upskilling Be the Solution to AI Job Disruption?

Artificial intelligence (AI) lives and breathes automation and breeds yet more automation and — while a technical marvel — may well be the beginning of the end for many jobs.

In the same way that the Industrial Age both created and destroyed centuries-old methods of working — reading about the Luddites of the 19th century is a worthy rabbit hole — AI is coming in fast, and the full ramifications on the industries of today are still in their infancy.

The AI-driven workforce transformation now wags its tail at white-collar jobs, with even coding careers now under threat — captured in our report on Devin AI, the world’s first fully autonomous software engineer.

Are we arriving at an era where AI will put millions of people out of their jobs, or at least cut their job responsibilities in half — and their salaries too?

Can the workforce keep up with this wave of AI job disruption — and will upskilling and re-skilling save the modern workforce from the impending job loss implosion?

Key Takeaways

  • AI automation threatens to put millions out of their jobs or significantly reduce their job responsibilities and salaries.
  • While widespread job losses are feared, some experts suggest AI will lead to mass disruption rather than unemployment, requiring a shift in skill demand.
  • Upskilling and reskilling are proposed solutions, but face challenges like the speed of AI advancement and accessibility of programs.
  • Companies should invest in upskilling/reskilling as long-term talent planning, and individuals must become tech-literate and develop AI-complementary skills like creativity.

The Current State of AI Job Disruption

Recent reports indicate a rapid acceleration in AI adoption, with McKinsey estimating that between 2030 and 2060, half of today’s work tasks could be automated.

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This shift is expected to affect a broad spectrum of occupations, including marketing, software engineering, and financial advising. While past automation primarily impacted low-skilled jobs, the advent of generative AI poses a threat to highly educated and skilled professionals, McKinsey says.

In the UK for instance, nearly 8 million jobs could be at risk of AI takeover, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found.

According to IPPR, entry-level and back-office roles are the most vulnerable during the first phase of AI automation — which currently holds sway. Furthermore, the IPPR report highlights that women and young individuals are expected to bear the brunt of these changes.

Without governmental intervention, the IPPR implies that as much as 59% of tasks could face automation, posing a significant risk to workers with lower skill levels.

AI researchers from OpenAI and the University of Pennsylvania recently investigated the correlation between the growing capabilities of generative AI models and the impact on the U.S. labor market.

The findings indicate that the introduction of large language models (LLMs) and LLM-powered software could potentially affect a significant portion of the U.S. workforce across all wage levels.

Approximately 80% of U.S. workers may have at least 10% of their job tasks impacted by LLMs. Meanwhile, around 19% of the workforce could see 50% of their tasks affected by AI models.

Contrary to previous studies, the researchers suggest that higher-income jobs may face greater exposure to the capabilities of LLMs and LLM-powered software solutions when compared to lower-wage occupations.

However, despite fears of widespread job losses, economics expert and professor at Stanford University, Erik Brynjolfsson, suggests that AI will lead to mass disruption rather than mass unemployment.

Brynjolfsson believes that while some jobs may see wage reductions and others may experience wage increases, there will be a significant reallocation and rescaling of labor with winners and losers. Brynjolfsson emphasizes that the transition will involve a shift in demand for different kinds of skills, necessitating a substantial adjustment in the labor market.

Contrary to Brynjolfsson’s stance on mass unemployment, The World Economic Forum (WEF) anticipates that 14 million jobs will be lost globally over the next five years, accompanied by significant skill shifts as a result of advancements in AI. While AI will create new job opportunities, it will also necessitate upskilling and reskilling on a large scale to meet the demands of the new digital age.

Can Upskilling and Re-skilling Be a Solution to AI Job Losses?

There have been calls for the immediate retraining and upskilling of people doing low-tiered jobs considered to be more vulnerable to AI displacement. However, based on some of the reports cited above, this call extends to higher-income skills, like tech roles.

In a recent study, software company ServiceNow, in collaboration with research partner Pearson, acknowledges the divergent perspectives on the impact of AI in the workplace and calls for upskilling and reskilling of the workforce to cushion the effect AI will have on jobs and ready people to adapt to new job requirements influenced by AI.

For context, upskilling focuses on building upon existing skillsets that allow workers to remain relevant in their current field while reskilling equips them with entirely new skillsets to transition into different roles altogether.

The question remains: can these approaches truly mitigate large-scale AI-induced job displacement?

The Answer is Complex — Here’s Why

  • The Speed of Change

AI is advancing rapidly, without minding whether or not humans are catching up with what they bring to the labor market. This potentially renders certain skills obsolete before serious upskilling initiatives can even begin, throwing more on the desk of HRs who may struggle with picking who is fit to take on new roles and otherwise.

Marc Coleman, CEO at UNLEASH.ai, touched on this while speaking with Techopedia. He said:

“There is a huge skills mismatch in the current marketplace. Over the next two years, we’ll experience a massive headache figuring out steps forward, including the looming cloud of AI adoption.

 

HR is sitting in a critical seat at the table with the talent war at a whole new level — it’ll take guts to manage the new jobs coming through and those being destroyed due to AI.”

  • Accessibility of Programs

High-quality upskilling and reskilling programs may not be readily available or affordable for everyone. This could exacerbate existing inequalities in the workforce.

Joseph Stiglitz, a winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in economics, already pointed out how AI will most likely cause more inequality in the workforce in an interview with Scientific American last year.

Stiglitz said: “What we must recognize is that we created a system where workers don’t have much bargaining power. In that kind of world AI may be an ally of the employer and weaken workers’ bargaining power even more, which could increase inequality even more.”

However, There’s Also Reason for Optimism

Despite these challenges, Lori Cummings, PHR, SHRM-CP, SVP of People and Culture at Skillable, maintains that upskilling and reskilling are the way to go.

While speaking with Techopedia, she cautions employees to get upskilled or be left behind:

“Companies are still responding to the fallout from the chaos of last year’s AI revolution. Last year was a race for most companies to roll out AI features in their products, services, solutions as well as internal company tools and processes.

 

“Employees who are not upskilled in AI can find themselves behind not only with their own company’s requirements but with the skills and experience required to grow their careers.”

Responding to the issue of affordability of upskilling and reskilling programs, Cummings calls on companies to see such programs as investments that will pay off in the long run.

“Investment in upskilling employees is not just a retention tool, but a key tactic in longer-term talent planning and ensuring depth of talent across an organization. Investment in the talent acquisition process is significant in hard and soft costs.

 

“Assimilating talent and onboarding new employees into a company should consider how quickly, efficiently and effectively the new team member can contribute to their department.”

Nick Shah, president and founder at Peterson Technology Partners, told Techopedia via email:

“I think it is too soon to start calling the AI boom an apocalypse.”

However, Shah agrees that AI will certainly bring changes to the way people work, calling for reskilling and upskilling of employees.

“Re-skilling and upskilling gives employees a way to stay abreast with the developments in AI and give them a better chance at grabbing new opportunities that the AI industry will create.

 

“The most important thing that anyone can do is become more tech-literate on the new technology and developments with the available tools as soon as possible.”

The Bottom Line

The current state of AI-driven workforce disruption underscores the need for proactive policies and individual readiness to navigate the evolving job market.

As AI continues to reshape industries and job roles, a strategic approach to workforce adaptation and skill development will be crucial for ensuring a smooth transition into the AI-driven future.

Maybe an apocalypse does not lie ahead in all of this. Instead, the future may hold opportunities for humans and AI to collaborate. Upskilling in areas complementary to AI, like creativity, critical thinking, and physical and manual tasks, could be key.

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Franklin Okeke
Technology Journalist

Franklin is an author and tech journalist with over seven years of IT experience. Coming from a software development background, his expertise lies in all things cybersecurity, AI, cloud computing, and IoT. Apart from Techopedia, Franklin’s work has been featured in many tech publications such as TechRepublic, The Register, TechInformed, and Moonlock.  In addition to pursuing a Master's degree in Cybersecurity & Human Factors from Bournemouth University, he has two published books and four academic papers to his name.  When he is not reading or writing, Franklin either trains at a boxing gym or plays the piano.