CIO upfront: Why transferrable skills will matter more in an AI world

We’ve been talking about the AI revolution for years, but shifting from words to action has proven harder. Most New Zealand organisations seem stuck in “she’ll be right” mode, with businesses and workers largely unprepared for the impacts of AI.

Our research shows many of us are still placing emphasis on specific qualifications over skills. However, the training a New Zealander receives from one job translates to 12 other jobs on average Patrick Quesnel, Microsoft NZ

Microsoft research shows the gains to be achieved from AI are not due “sometime in the distant future” as many believe – New Zealand is set to realise 39 per cent gains in the next two years.

Meanwhile, our recent Preparing for AI in New Zealand report by AlphaBeta shows workers are already experiencing disruption thanks to AI. The fact is, the revolution has already started. We can’t keep sleeping through it or we’ll wake up to find the world has changed without us.

One of the central problems the Preparing for AI report identifies is a lack of incentives for businesses to act quickly to prepare workers or knowledge about resources available.

Also, employers are often stuck in the “paper over learning potential” mindset. They value qualifications over transferrable skills, ignoring people’s ability to apply past experience to new roles or learn new tasks. To speed up the preparation process and make sure everyone is ready to make the most of the benefits, we need to incentivise fast action and reskilling and embrace as many pathways as possible, whether it be on-the-job training, industry partnerships or online resources.

Preparing our workforce starts with education from the top down.

Managers first need to research which skills will be needed most in the next few years, so they can understand how to guide their employees.

Regular communication about how to get ready for that market comes next. There’s no doubt things are changing fast. The Preparing for AI study shows the increased demand for digital professionals had driven up the median base salary for IT workers 13 per cent in six months during 2018.

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However, digital jobs created directly by AI are a relatively small proportion (17 per cent) of the overall job growth we expect to see, particularly in the financial services, construction and manufacturing sectors. Manufacturing and construction stand to realise a whopping four times the gains of the local digital sector thanks to improved processes. This means the focus shouldn’t be on retraining to enter a digital job, but more to understand AI so you can apply your skills to any role. This is how we can leverage AI to help us, not replace us.

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Fifty eight per cent of the new jobs created by AI will require interpersonal, creative or strategic skills, which computers aren’t able to do as well. Employers say they are also more likely to take on casual staff with the right skills, expanding the flexible job market.

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That’s where New Zealand employers have a mental hurdle to overcome. The Preparing for AI research shows many of us are still placing emphasis on specific qualifications over skills. However, the training a New Zealander receives from one job translates to 12 other jobs on average, creating better resilience to changes in the job market as well as bringing new perspectives into the workplace.

We know we’re asking employers to think differently, which is why we created our free online AI Business School as an easy way for managers to explore exactly what AI could mean for businesses and workers. Skills mapping such as through LinkedIn shows where the biggest gaps in the market are, or what a worker’s skills could be applied to.

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A shift in attitudes towards on-the-job training and more partnerships to support upskilling will be crucial Patrick Quesnel, Microsoft NZ

If Kiwi employers want to have the broadest possible access to talented workers, we need to shift our attitudes about needing a piece of paper or specific experience to do certain tasks.

Consider hiring someone with broader experience who could be easily trained for the role, or upskill one of your own workers rather than looking for the perfect match. (The author is a case in point, having come to Microsoft from a career outside ICT.)

The Government’s current focus on creating new models of future-fit tertiary training and apprenticeships provides the perfect opportunity to consider how all industries can step up on education and create the life-long learning environment we need.

One of the simplest ways to upskill employees is via online training courses.

Although reskilling takes workers out of work, causing lost productivity, the initial time investment will be repaid many times over as workers are increasingly able to focus on the tasks that give them more satisfaction.

And with fewer workplace accidents as automation takes over more dangerous roles or AI improves health and safety, as with Datacom’s solution developed especially for Vulcan Steel, which spots potential risks via camera footage and alerts the team when extra training is required.

However, many workers don’t know which courses to take, making industry partnerships more important than ever.

Since the beginning of 2019, we’ve been partnering with the Government to upskill hundreds of public sector workers in AI and other digital technologies. The initial free workshop programme offered in the first six months was in such high demand, even more courses are being offered in the second half of 2019 to reach 1,500 public sector employees, and we’re now expanding this to the general market.

No system is perfect, and the Preparing for AI study shows there are even trickier problems to solve. The one group often left out of the equation is casual workers and the unemployed. These are the people who usually won’t be able to access retraining schemes via work. Potentially the private sector could make provision for flexible workers in upskilling programmes, with support from the Government for retraining long-term unemployed New Zealanders. Programmes such as Mana in Mahi show how it can be done.

While there’s no doubt that the further rollout of AI across all industries will enable businesses, organisations and indeed workers to do more than ever before, more incentives are needed to ensure everyone succeeds.

A shift in attitudes towards on-the-job training and more partnerships to support upskilling will be crucial. AI isn’t only going to create new jobs, it’s already creating a new world. It’s time to wake up.

Patrick Quesnel is senior cloud and AI business group lead at Microsoft NZ

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