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Employers Are Setting Workers Up for Failure

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 2/3/2018 Lolade Fadulu
a close up of a machine© Jetta Productions / Getty

Machines are learning how to perform routine tasks and some more complicated ones, and their progress is piquing employers’ interests. The retail and health industries in particular stand the most to gain from incorporating artificial intelligence into work. Both could see about a 50 percent revenue increase, according to a new Accenture report. And if all companies invest in artificial intelligence at a rate similar to that of top-performing businesses, such as those in the S&P 500, companies could boost their revenues by 38 percent.

Despite all of the talkof machinestaking away jobs, the study also found that 100 percent of C-level executives who plan to use artificial intelligence intend to use that AI to enhance, not diminish, their workers’ capabilities; three in four of the C-level executives surveyed said they plan to automate tasks “to a large or very large extent” in the next three years.

Enhancing workers’ capabilities could pay off substantially. As an example, the research notes that pathologists without AI are able to identify breast cancer cells accurately 96 percent of the time and that machines without humans are able to identify the cells accurately 92 percent of the time. But when humans and machines work together, they identify the cells almost 100 percent of the time.

Because implementing artificial intelligence would create new positions—such as people who would train machines or ensure that the machines do not, say, hurt humans—the Accenture analysis found that employment could increase by 10 percent due to the increased need for human-machine collaboration. Humans would need new digital skills to collaborate with machines, and “human-interface designers” (the people ensuring that machines are user-friendly) would become invaluable.

The report found that workers across age groups are interested in developing new skills—the challenge is that they don’t always get the support they need to acquire them. Schools attempt to provide their students with skills such as computer programming that will become increasingly important in the 21st century, yet the highly uneven access to quality education puts certain populations at a disadvantage. Federal job-training programs similarly strive to help people gain new and marketable skills, but they struggle to achieve noteworthy results on a large scale.

Workers who need digital skills could instead turn to their employers, especially the companies embracing the new technologies that are changing the very nature of their work. But fewer than 3 percent of executives, the report found, plan in the next three years to significantly increase investment in training programs that would help laborers work in tandem with machines. Meanwhile, 58 percent plan to slightly increase training, and 39 percent plan to keep their training the same.

Companies “are at the very early stage of understanding that human-machine collaboration is where the real value is,” said Ellyn Shook, the author of the report and the director of human resources at Accenture, suggesting that most executives are focused on introducing machines to help workers but haven’t quite figured out how to match machines up with human talent to maximize results.

Curiously, while employers seem to benefit the most from training workers, they appear to be the most reluctant compared to educators and the federal government when it comes to investing in training.

That’s largely because employers are more focused on instant gratification. Unlike the 1970s, when employers reinvested the majority of their profits into training programs, today’s employers tend to reinvest their profits into buybacks and dividends. That means a massive shift in corporate culture would need to occur—companies would need to realize that the training is worth the return on investment. “People want to learn and if you are offering training, that is an inducement to join the firm,” said Rick Wartzman, who has written extensively about employer loyalty. “Folks would stick around longer if you are investing in them.” Though the national turnover rate across industries was just 2.2 percent in November, turnover increased for certain industries: transportation, warehousing, utilities, and state and local government.

Some companies choose not to invest in training precisely because they haven’t been able to foster employee loyalty. What if after having spent money on training, employees leave for a better opportunity? One way to get around that, as demonstrated by the Employer Resource Network model, is to have employers in certain industries convene to fund training initiatives at a local community college or a nonprofit organization.

It’s worth mentioning that some companies may have said they didn’t plan to significantly increase investment in training programs simply because they have recently done so. In its most recent report, the ManpowerGroup, which has surveyed more than 2,000 hiring managers annually since 2005, found that almost half of employers choose to equip their workers with additional skills by offering training and development—four times the rate found in the 2015 survey, which was 12 percent. Indeed, the explosion in training might reflect the fact that employers are talking constantly about the lack of skilled candidates, or the so-called skills gap, and are seeking to rectify that on their own.

Regardless, Wartzman and other experts are incredulous when they see such findings: “The best and largest body of evidence suggests that over decades employers by and large have invested less and less in worker development and training,” he said. That’s especially apparent with training for frontline employees; according to Wartzman, most training goes towards management training nowadays.

The debate over who—the federal government, schools, employers—should provide training to workers is decades old. When it comes to workers’ preferences, 14 percent of laborers say the onus should be on colleges and universities, while 50 percent say it should be on the federal government and 61 percent look toward employers, according to a new report by Northeastern University and Gallup.

No one sector bears all of the training responsibility. For Shook, “a strong collaboration between companies, organized labor, governance, and academia to radically rethink how we are going to prepare people for the future workforce” is necessary. Still, when public-sector programs fail, it tends to be because of a gap between the needs of the marketplace and what is going on in the classroom, Wartzman told me—and that demonstrates the need for employer involvement.

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