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When it comes to training, AI doesn’t quite have what it takes

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison)

It’s no secret that artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming an increasingly significant influence on the global workforce. Some experts see AI taking over human roles almost entirely, automating even white-collar jobs that might have once been seen as “safe.” Powerful as AI is, however, there are limits to its capabilities — particularly when it comes to training, reskilling, and upskilling employees.

The more advanced technology becomes, the greater the need for humans who understand how to wield it; even the most valuable piece of technology isn’t worth much if no one knows how to leverage it. As machines become ever more capable of completing repetitive, low-skill tasks, workers will shift into more cognitively complex roles that demand human brainpower.

In a recent report titled “Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages,” McKinsey Global Institute found that nearly 60 percent of companies generating more than $1 billion in revenue are already piloting robotic automation of some workplace tasks. The New York Times reported that some businesses have begun replacing human workers with automation platforms on low-skill tasks. But the Times noted that the companies that produce automation bots see them as “helpful assistants instead of job killers ... liberating workers rather than replacing them.”

The fact is, humans will not be replaced by automation, but they will need to learn new skills to control automation. Jobs won’t disappear — they’ll evolve — and workers will need to evolve as well. Companies will need to invest in training new employees on new technologies and retraining current staff as more advanced tools come on the market.

The human-AI training hybrid

The shift toward digital and automated processes has been underway for years. Many companies already rely on computers to onboard employees. The restaurant industry in particular has been using online training portals (often called e-learning) for some time, and there are benefits to this method. Online training ensures everyone receives the same basic material portrayed in the same way, and it allows managers to uniformly track new employees’ progress and measure their success.

But in restaurants, as in most industries, employees must cultivate soft skills that they simply can’t learn from a computer. Customer service strategies, communication skills, and problem-solving are all essential — and uniquely human — attributes that cannot be duplicated by artificial intelligence.

Going further, peer-to-peer engagement has a role to play in all types of training, but it’s especially crucial in reskilling — overhauling one’s expertise can be much more complex. Apprenticeship programs are a particularly effective way of offering on-the-job learning to individuals entering a new industry, and mentorship is a major component of that. The mentor-apprentice relationship depends on regular conversations and meetings, things AI can not readily replace.

The best training programs will include both human leadership and technology. Mount Sinai Beth Israel demonstrated this when it used a robot to observe the decision-making patterns of nurses on the hospital’s labor ward, according to Business Insider. After gathering information about the nurses’ behaviors, the robot picked up on their scheduling and assignment habits and was able to make valuable recommendations that the nurses could then use in their everyday tasks.

The robot had a 90 percent success rate, indicating that automation programs will eventually be able to supplement training and allow trainers to focus on more complex elements of the job; tech will be an aid, rather than a replacement.

The rise of soft skills

The way forward for businesses of all stripes is an emphasis on soft skills. Computers will be able to recommend products, fulfill orders, capture data, and complete a range of tasks at a fraction of the cost of humans. That means that staff members will be called upon for a growing number of creative initiatives and will need strong analytical and communication abilities to fulfill their roles within their companies.

Training people on those soft skills, and the tech skills they’ll need to use advanced platforms, will require a community-oriented strategy. People thrive when they feel supported and included, so departmentwide or companywide initiatives will be crucial to getting workers on board. Employees sometimes balk at major changes, so knowing that they’re learning alongside their colleagues will ease their skepticism and motivate them to succeed. They’ll be able to share tips and work through challenges together, not to mention spur friendly competition that will benefit the company’s overall productivity.

Their buy-in will be important, because reskilling is not a one-time event. It should occur continuously throughout an employee’s career, particularly as the pace of tech innovation continues to speed up. Most employees understand this — a 2016 study from Pew Research Center found that 87 percent of workers surveyed consider ongoing skills development “essential” to their careers. The more dynamic and accessible companies make their reskilling trainings, the faster their teams will catch up to the tech changes that are reshaping the workforce.

Truck drivers are a prime example of this. Where they once received training only at the start of their careers, they’re now being forced to reskill and upskill more often as self-driving vehicles become more of a reality and their roles become more technical.

But there are many fields that will face similar changes, and workers who are accustomed to old ways of operating may struggle to keep up. Employees who previously needed few technical skills to succeed will suddenly be faced with demands for some degree of tech-savvy, as well as the ability to interface with customers in greater depth.

Bloomberg reported that a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago recently introduced kiosks and online payment options but also hired more staff members than the company’s more traditional storefronts. The business “repurposed” labor and tasked employees with greeting guests and delivering food to tables instead of taking orders. This allowed for more personal customer engagement without sacrificing speed and efficiency. The employee role shifted, but it made for a better brand experience.

The need for this type of reskilling extends to all industries. McKinsey Global Institute predicts that up to a third of the United States workforce may need to learn new skills and find new occupations by 2030. Companies must begin reskilling employees now, and such training opportunities must be readily available and accessible to all American workers, regardless of their current positions. 

Haley Shoaf, VP of Impact at LaunchCode (opens in new tab) 

Image Credit: Duncan Andison / Shutterstock

Haley Shoaf is the VP of Impact at LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization preparing individuals for and matching them with opportunities in the technology industry.