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Mind over machine: Building the ultimate future-proof workforce

(Image credit: Image Credit: Razum / Shutterstock)

There’s a lot of catastrophising about the future of work – the prevailing narrative being that machines will steal our jobs. It’s unsurprising that many feel this way. According to McKinsey, over 50 per cent of the global working population is at risk of automation, leaving around 375 million workers who may need to completely change their occupation and acquire new skills as a result.

In the Second Industrial Revolution, machines took many of our manual tasks, alleviating hard physical labour, and we were largely grateful. This freed us up to do more thoughtful jobs where we could exercise our intelligent, problem-solving human minds. But now we’re facing down a Fourth Industrial Revolution, where artificial intelligence, at its most extreme, threatens to even replace our intellect

Yet, just as technology automated many of those routine, physical tasks – the same will be true in the next few years. The kind of jobs that AI will be able to automate are those that humans currently don’t enjoy, and typically aren’t very good at – the menial, repetitive tasks, like inputting data into spreadsheets, that are prone to human error. Rather than closing doors on roles, I like to think that this will open up new career opportunities for employees to do more creative and enjoyable work that requires irreplaceable human skills.

In order to reach an ideal state of human and machine collaboration, companies must start laying the groundwork today. First and foremost, every employee will need a level of digital proficiency. Secondly, every company must be a technology company. The latter is well-underway as businesses undergo digital transformation, yet it’s crucial that the former happens in tandem. In today’s evolving economic landscape, doubling-down on upskilling and reskilling existing talent is the first step forward.

Nurturing digitally savvy employees

Companies are starting to recognise the significant part they must play in averting a skills crisis brought about by automation. Today, over two thirds of UK businesses claim to have unfilled digital vacancies, and only a third are confident they will be able to hire individuals with the digital skills they need in the next three to five years. As a result, providing digital training to employees isn’t simply something that is nice to do, it’s a business imperative.

This year, several major global companies have made bold commitments to upskilling their staff. Take Amazon, which pledged $700 million towards upskilling around 100,000 of its US-based employees by 2025 through a program aimed at providing technical training in software and engineering. The company was praised for taking an innovative approach to training their lower-skilled workers in order to mitigate potential job losses from automation; equipping such employees with future-proof skills and providing pathways for workers to build careers in new areas.

Upskilling looks a little different for every company. Amazon’s approach tackles the problem of manual job displacement amongst lower-skilled employees. But what about upskilling employees of varying skill levels, based in different locations all over the world?

Coursera has been working with one of the ‘Big Four’ since 2017 to achieve just this. To better serve their clients embarking on a digital transformation journey, leadership realised it needed to upskill their own consultants for the digital era. It made the bold decision to offer comprehensive training in technical skill areas such as AI, data science and machine learning to all of their employees, worldwide. With a diverse portfolio of top-quality courses, Coursera is able to provide training options to employees of any level and any role — whether they are a beginner looking for an introduction to Big Data or an expert brushing up on advanced algorithms. Our client is now also leveraging learner data to monitor digital skills proficiency and track global learning goals across their multinational offices.

The companies taking action now are the trail-blazers – leading by example, they represent a domino-effect of upskilling sweeping across industries as more companies recognise the importance of building a digitally-savvy workforce. 

Fostering a learning culture

Upskilling for the future isn’t just a box-ticking exercise – to be successful, it requires a truly transformational approach. The UK as a whole is starting to undergo a mindset shift towards prioritising lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling professionals beyond their traditional university degree. Last year, the government committed £100 million towards an ongoing retraining scheme, after identifying that adults with the lowest formal qualifications are the least likely to receive training later in life. But the onus is also on businesses to build a workplace environment that celebrates learning – where training is incentivised, easily accessible, and personalised.

The business benefits of investing in upskilling or reskilling existing employees to fill internal vacancies, rather than simply sourcing outside talent, are clear. Hiring someone externally is time-consuming and costly – in fact, retraining someone for a new job internally can be done for as little as one-sixth of the cost of hiring an external candidate. 

Investments in skills development should happen alongside a wider effort to improve talent mobility within organisations. They must create an environment where upskilling is encouraged, and incentivised, by rewarding those who level-up their skills with the opportunity to then steer their career in new directions.

Leading enterprise AI software provider C3.ai sets an example by offering its employees a full paid tuition for the University of Illinois Master of Computer Science degree through Coursera’s online platform. C3.ai even offers incredible career incentives to employees who complete a degree, such as a 15 per cent salary increase and a $25,000 cash bonus. In doing so, C3.ai is quickly becoming a leader for attracting, retaining, and growing computer science and data science talent, some of the most competitive fields in the market.

Closing the gap between the campus and the workplace

Higher education has an important role to play in shaping the future of work. With 42 per cent of the core job skills required today set to change substantially by as early as 2022, businesses depend on universities to supply them with graduates already equipped with the digital skills needed to thrive in the age of automation. Yet according to a 2018 survey of UK university graduates, 49 per cent of students feel unsure whether their university has prepared them for the world of work. The skills people learn at university and the skills they will actually need in the workplace must match up.

Businesses and educators must come together to bridge this divide. Coursera for Campus is an example of how this can happen. The new offering is designed to help any university to use content on Coursera to deliver job-relevant, multi-disciplinary online learning to its learners. Universities will have access to more than 3,600 high-quality courses that can be integrated into degree curricula as credit-eligible. The platform is helping universities to take the digital leap and close the distance between employers and universities with job-relevant learning.

Introducing the human-machine workforce

What businesses should be asking is: are we equipping people with the future-proof skills, and building the right culture to take advantage of the new opportunities that will arise in a technology-driven workplace?

Ultimately, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t whether robots will replace human workers. The future workforce isn't going to be machines. But it's not going to be completely human either – because machines and humans will always be stronger together than either one is alone.

Anthony Tattersall, Senior Director of Enterprise, EMEA, Coursera