NEWPORT NEWS – Ten years from now, the work force is expected to look much different from how it does today. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a big reason. But as was the case with computers 40 or 50 years ago, it’s more than likely the initial fears of doom and gloom won’t materialize.
“When we look at changes in technology in the past, it’s often been the case that these predictions about job losses have been somewhat overstated,” said Shoshana Schwartz, who earned a Ph.D. in business in 2020 from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is an assistant professor of management at Christopher Newport University. “When we think about AI, there is still a lot to be known.”
Colleague William “Willy” Donaldson, an associate professor of management at CNU, agrees.
“A lot of people think it’s either/or, either you’re going to keep your job or you’re going to lose your job to AI. It’s actually more nuanced than that,” he said.
Said Rajiv Kohli, who is a business professor at the College of William & Mary and has been with the college since 2005: “This is a very broad topic, and so I’ll just preface that by saying it will mean different things for different types of work force. So, people who are in retail would have different needs than people who are perhaps in construction.”
Jobs in construction and road improvements, Donaldson said, appear safe from AI because those need to be done by physical labor, people, or robots. The jobs that will be replaced by AP are the tedious, repetitive ones (call centers come to mind) or ones that don’t involve complex thinking.
“Computers are really good at following a linear ‘if then’ sort of diagram. If this happens, if I get that word, if I do this, then I should do that,” Donaldson explained.
Whitney Lester, the senior director for talent development with the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, said AI already is in use in jobs that involve research or coding, data analysis, predictive analytics, and technical writing.
Among the most popular form of AI is ChatGPT, which is proficient in summarizing information. Kohli points to that affecting copywriters, and those who write advertising campaigns.
“It can even write jokes for you,” he said. “So those businesses are more likely to be affected.”
Donaldson, who also is a consultant, advises his clients and students to become good “at uniquely human things. At being able to perceive differences and judge differences, judging tone of voice, being able to look at different opinions.” He said work at understanding where AI can be used and where it can’t.
Christina Brooks also works at the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, where she’s the senior director of NextGen and special projects. She refers to AI as another item in the work force toolbox, and has been in use for a long time.
“It’s evolving,” she said. “The key is learning how to utilize that tool. How to interact with that tool and to take the best practices that are in place.”
There’s also no reason for AI to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Working in concert with AI can often produce better results than either could on its own. Donaldson cites an example of a drug company having its engineers and technicians use ChatGPT to produce initial drafts, then having scientists follow up with their expertise to make sure it’s correct scientifically.
Kohli points to word processing as a perfect example.
“If we think about these technologies as an assistant to us, that makes us even more productive,” he said. “We can move up the value chain, and start doing things that are more creative with the help of these technologies.”
He said offices don’t have as many employees doing dictation as in years past.
“That doesn’t mean that office work has reduced,” he said. “Those people are doing more higher-level work. They’re planning things. They’re forecasting things. They’re drafting advertising campaigns. Their work has moved up with the help of these tools. And that’s how I see this technology.”
An example Schwartz mentioned was the automated teller machine.
“The initial thought was now that we have ATMs, we’re not going to need bank tellers. We won’t need people working in banks anymore,” she said.
That wasn’t true.
“Banks could expand their offerings, and there were changes in jobs,” she said. “But it wasn’t this kind of mass ‘now banks no longer employ people.’”
Brooks and Lester have read studies showing AI combined with the human element increases productivity.
“What it didn’t replace was creativity,” Brooks said. “That interpretation of an abstract idea turned into a concrete thought, that piece is very human.”
Those who embrace AI sooner will be more successful, Lester said. The ones who are apprehensive about the next level of technology will struggle.
Some of the adjustments to a changing work force will have to be behavioral, Kohli said.
“As individuals, we were used to a long career in whatever we went to school for,” he said. “We were educated as accountants, so we remained accountants.”
Kohli sees the jobs of the future changing every five to ten years.
“You may not be an accountant ten years from now,” he said. “You may have a different title, something that we can’t even foresee right now because of the changing nature of work, changing nature of business.”
Putting employes to better use by having them manage the AI is what Lester suggests.
“There’s lots of room,” he said. “As long as everybody is prepared to pivot, I think it will work out okay.”
Brooks said some of the jobs of the future haven’t been conceived yet.
“Focusing on problem-solving, critical-thinking skills, connecting the abstract to the concrete, time-management, project management, and communication, those are those core concepts that will prepare individuals for success in just about every industry you can think of,” she said.
Our way of education may have to shift, too.
“Learning how to interact with technology is a critical skill set,” Brooks said. “Just as we had to learn how to use search engines, we had to learn how to use social media, we had to learn how to use computers in general, we’re going to have to teach our next generation of work force how to use this tool, how to use it effectively and how to use it responsibly.”
Donaldson, Kohli, Schwartz, Brooks, and Lester are embracing what AI has to offer. It is the future; we just don’t know what it will look like.
“I do think it’s a bit of a fool’s game trying to project with any precision,” Lester said. “But I think we just know change is coming and it won’t all be bad.”