artificial intelligence

Report: Artificial intelligence as a pathway to advance the cause of equity

Workers believe they need more upskilling as a result of AI and they are ready to take on new training, according to JFF research

“It has never been clearer – both the possibilities and the challenges that technology brings in advancing and reshaping the future of work,” says Alex Swartsel, managing director of insights at JFFLabs, part of Jobs for the Future (JFF). “It’s incumbent on us to engage, to make sure that technology is being developed, implemented, and prepared for in a way that actually advances the cause of equity. We really see it as a moral imperative for us.”

The organization’s new 2023 Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work Survey – conducted with Morning Consult – recently asked more than 2,200 adult workers and learners their thoughts about AI. The survey reveals a mix of excitement and concern.

According to the findings, 58% of workers think they need to learn new skills as a result of AI. About two thirds of the surveyed adults said that they had recently heard something about AI. Of that 66%, about half said they had heard something positive with the other half hearing something negative.

Alex Swartsel, managing director of insights at JFFLabs – part of Jobs for the Future

“It’s been a bit binary,” says Swartsel. “It’s been either, ‘This is the greatest technology that’s ever existed’ or as we’ve seen even some technologists say, ‘It’s a human extinction-level event.’”

“That would be a lot for someone to parse if you are going to work every day and trying to think about how you can prepare for the future. In that sense, I think that the impetus to learn new skills was very confirming about why it’s so important – certainly why we believe it’s so important for the entire education and workforce ecosystem to work together to make sure that people do have these skills that they need.”

Fewer than one-in-ten workers report experiencing AI at work so far.

Despite that number, Swartsel notes, “If I were a worker, even just casually consuming the news coverage about AI, I would be thinking, ‘What do I need to do?’ because the coverage has been very extensive and, I think, appropriately dramatic in terms of the nature of the transformation that we’re going to see.”

Tremendous Opportunity for Employers

The survey indicates 88% of workers do not think their employers will support them in gaining a better understanding of AI.

But, says Swartsel, there are significant reasons for employers to engage.

“[Survey respondents] are eager to get training. Not quite sure where it can come from. For employers who are eager to continue to strengthen their own employee experience, to increase retention, to increase the degree to which employers are engaged, the opportunity is really tremendous for an employer to say, ‘Hey, let’s actually support people in understanding what these tools are like and how they can be used to support not just the employers goals, but the individuals goals, as well.’”

She points out it’s not just technical skills that will help advance workers.

“What we’re starting then to see is that, in addition to the technical skills that will be needed, a lot of what is going to be really important for workers to be able to adapt to this new environment is what you might think of as more durable skills – critical thinking, fundamental communication skills, interpersonal skills that can actually be upleveled by the application of AI. Also a degree of flexibility, adaptability, the capacity to understand not just how to use a particular tool at a particular time, but how technology is going to evolve and what it looks like for you as a worker to continue to stay abreast of those developments.”

‘We’re just scratching the surface’

“This is an initial foray for us into work that’s going to be incredibly important over the life of [JFFLabs’] Center for Artificial Intelligence & the Future of Work,” explains Swartsel. “Deeply understanding the perspectives and lived experiences that workers and learners bring to this – especially the workers and learners who represent populations that are of a special focus and attention for JFF, largely including people who’ve experienced barriers to advancement in the past.”

She continues, “We’re just scratching the surface here. There’s more that we need to learn. I think in some ways, the identification of the need to learn new skills is itself commentary on just how extensive the nature of this transformation is going to be – even if people are just beginning to experience it.”

Swartsel says it’s imperative that the stakeholder community ask both where there are challenges for equity in AI and where there are real opportunities. “If we don’t get right this question of how AI can advance equitable economic opportunity, we are going to be in a much different position than we want to be as a country and as a society.”

Acknowledging how quickly artificial intelligence is developing, Swartsel says, “Something that encourages me about what’s possible here is looking back at what we’ve all, as a human race, been through in the last several years. The way in which the pandemic so completely upended the way in which we learn and work has taught us all a lot about what it looks like to make effective use of technology, to learn and experiment, to adapt rapidly, and to do that in a way that’s really, at its best, deeply human-centered.”

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