Artificial Intelligence Changes Skills Needs

By Kathy Gurchiek May 26, 2017
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In the movie "Hidden Figures," the brilliant women calculating mathematical formulas for NASA's space race against Russia were called "computers."

But the artificial intelligence (AI) of the hulking IBM 7090 computer that NASA brought in could perform 24,000 calculations per second. It was much faster than the human computers punching complex equations into their calculators.

The threat to the women's jobs was real. Many of them became engineers and took on different tasks, including maintaining the IBM computer—and others—that took over their jobs, said Brenda Vesey, senior vice president, HR integration and transformation programs, at Teva Pharmaceuticals.

She spoke about "Working in the Age of Robotics: Managing Change and Preparing Knowledge Workers for Success" during the recent WorldatWork Total Rewards Conference.

AI covers a broad range of job activities, from synthesizing a lot of different data sources to image recognition to converting text to speech.

A global online survey of C-suite and HR leaders found that 36 percent of the more than 700 respondents had increased their use of AI and robotics over the previous 12 months. That was up from 18 percent who said they had done so when asked during the fourth quarter of 2016, according to research conducted during the first quarter of 2017 for Randstad Sourceright's Talent Trends report.

"Machines can take huge quantities of data and analyze these large data sets and come up with pattern recognitions that humans can't do [as quickly]," Vesey said. Moreover, machines can do it in an unbiased, amoral way, she added. She cited a Harvard study that predicted 47 percent of all U.S. jobs are at risk of being automated.

The staffing situation at Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York City illustrates how AI is changing job roles, Vesey noted. In 2000, that office employed 600 traders who bought and sold stock for clients; today, there are two equity traders on that office's trading desk as automated trading programs have taken over the work.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

Meeting Employers' Future Needs 

Advancements in technology mean workers will need to develop new skills to meet employer demand. The Randstad survey found that a scarcity of talent is a primary concern for U.S. business leaders.

"Despite fears that robots are going to displace good jobs, [HR] leaders are telling us the demand for talent is rising," said Rebecca Henderson, Randstad Sourceright CEO, in a news release. "Candidates need to focus on how they can further develop, adapt and present skills that are best suited to the jobs of the future."  

Respondents to Randstad's survey expect AI and robotics to have a positive impact on their businesses, with 70 percent reporting that they plan to hire extensively in the year ahead to keep pace with expected growth.

"Contrary to the headlines, this survey shows that automation can provide opportunities for people and vice versa," Henderson said.

Skills such as data presentation—organizing data so it is easy to understand—are expected to be in demand, according to professional networking site LinkedIn. And in the case of Goldman Sachs, while automated trading programs handle clients' investment needs, the firm now employs 200 computer engineers, according to a February 2017 Technology Review report.

It's incumbent upon HR professionals to educate their organization's leaders on changing job and skills needs, such as predictive analytics and digital leadership.

Employers should consider using formal, informal and social learning to foster a culture of perpetual learning, according to the conference session. Formal learning includes virtual training, in-person classroom training and self-paced education. Informal learning provides instant, searchable resources to employees. Social learning takes a more collaborative approach by using coaching and mentoring and by making social networking and online communities available to the workforce.

"It's no longer 'I learn, I work, I retire,' " said Sam Liu, a principal at Mercer who was among the session's speakers. Instead, it's " 'I learn, I do … I learn [some] more.' "

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