People parachuting off a branch as it's being cut off - offsetting job less through upskilling concept
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Over the past year, there have been many discussion, blogs and conferences focused on the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) into the digital workforce. There have also been many commentators predicting the loss of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs as AI gains ground. One of most favored solutions to this threat is retraining.

Amazon's recent announcement, pledging to upskill its workforce, supports this trending solution. Amazon said it will invest over $700 million to retrain employees who may be automated out of a job. Amazon's plan includes six programs designed to help workers from all backgrounds access training to move into highly skilled technical and non-technical roles across the company’s corporate offices, tech hubs, fulfillment centers, retail stores and transportation network, or even pursue career paths outside of Amazon

After reviewing its workforce and analysis of US hiring, Amazon found that its fastest growing highly-skilled jobs over the last five years include data mapping specialist, data scientist, solutions architect and business analyst, as well as logistics coordinator, process improvement manager and transportation specialist within its customer fulfillment network.

Upskilling in AI-Driven Workplaces

Overall, Amazon's plan aims to upskill workers to find a place in the new AI-driven digital workplace. Entrepreneur and technology expert Monica Eaton-Cardone, says that with automation on the cusp of upending every U.S. industry, businesses should view this as an opportunity to retrain and “upskill” employees in jobs at risk of being replaced. “Just about every sector of our economy will experience seismic change resulting from automation,” she said. “As data shows, we will see net job loss as positions disappear with the advent of new technologies. This could have disastrous economic consequences.” And there is no way around this. By 2030, automation will cut jobs by 29% while contributing as little as 13% to job creation, according to Forrester's Future of Work report.

The recent McKinsey Global Institute report quantifies this. Its Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation research indicates that by 2030 as many as 375 million workers — or roughly 14% of the global workforce — may need to switch occupational categories as digitization, automation and advances in AI disrupt the world of work.

Eaton-Cardone added that automation will hit women hardest. According to the Institue for Women's Policy Research, women represent 58% of U.S. workers in positions identified as being at high risk of replacement by automation, despite making up just 47% of the total workforce.

The McKinsey Global Institute report states that clerical work (such as secretaries, schedulers and bookkeepers) is especially susceptible to automation, and 72% of those jobs are held by women.

The potential exists for polarization between workers able to adapt and those that can’t, she said.  “If this occurs, the so-called ‘digital elite’ would be the beneficiaries of a lot of the new wealth generated, while the remaining workers would be marginalized,” she said. “It’s a bad scenario, as it creates a pretty untenable position economically.”

She added, “It will ultimately be up to individuals to expand on their skillsets, that said, given the far-reaching impacts of automation, every business has a vested interest in making reskilling a priority.”

Related Article: 6 Ways Artificial Intelligence Will Impact the Future Workplace

Enterprises Need New Skillsets

Alex Robbio, president and co-founder of Belatrix Software, said that Amazon’s initiative demonstrates the speed at which digital technologies are changing the world, and how they are affecting the skills and capabilities that companies require. In order to create successful products and services, technology plays a fundamental role. Even for physical products, in many cases it’s the accompanying software which is what differentiates it.

But to do this, companies require constantly changing skills. As a result, training and continuous education in skill development has become one of the most important factors for organizations to achieve long-term success. Training not only ensures a constant upgrading of skillsets, but it also has other benefits, Robbio added. 

Providing people with training opportunities is one of the most effective ways of retaining great people. Highly qualified people today choose where they want to work. If business leaders don’t take an active position in helping not only their own associates’ growth, but that of the extended community, they will always be facing the "talent shortage," he said.

With an aging population and low unemployment, companies need to consider that younger workers may not be excited by or aspire to be the traditional factory worker within the manufacturing or retail industries. More organizations like Amazon are relying on the integration of AI and robotics for resources and increased productivity. Skilled workers are essential to performing more tasks requiring non-repetitive work and the management of the technology, logistics, monitoring of processes and trouble-solving issues, according to John Samuel, who leads digital transformation, IT and cybersecurity for CGS.

"There is an extremely competitive labor market and growing skills gaps coupled with advanced technology in today's business. In our CGS Enterprise Learning 2019 Annual Report, we found that 52% of learning and development (L&D) leaders deemed digital upskilling as their highest priority," he said.

To meet the challenge of a changing business world, companies will need to reskill their existing workforce (like Amazon), Samuel said. Another strategy for those companies struggling to add new or skilled talent is to be more creative by creating efficiency within the existing operations.

According to Caitlin MacGregor, CEO of Plum, there is a problem with Amazon's approach to learning and development in the age of automation and AI, which is its focus on one-off, hard skills development rather than continuous, talents-based development.

However, recurring patterns of thought and behavior, such as innovation, adaptation or communication are transferable across the different roles and projects that an employee encounters on their career journey. With so much uncertainty around the future of jobs — The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, 75 million jobs will be displaced, but 133 million new human jobs will be created — enterprise organizations like Amazon that develop innate competencies to align with future business need will be the most agile and competitive.