A.I. moving ‘faster than real life’ is widening a skills gap workers need to keep up with, says CEO of the world’s biggest education company

May 27, 2023, 12:30 PM UTC
Andy Bird
Pearson CEO Andy Bird.
Courtesy of Pearson

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When it comes to production capability, human beings are no match for machines. But that isn’t stopping bosses from trying to get them there. 

Reskilling and upskilling are good business, Andy Bird, CEO of education giant Pearson Education, told Fortune’s Peter Vanham in a Fortune Connect executive session last week. Traditionally, that’s meant learning new skills and mastering new areas of study, which is Pearson’s bread and butter. Originally known for its numerous textbook imprints, the world’s largest education company now delivers educational courseware, assessments, and a fleet of digital education modules. 

Pearson currently offers a vast suite of learning programs aimed at educating workers about the manifold uses and applications of artificial intelligence. Why the pivot? According to Bird, most workers have no choice but to add A.I. fluency to their repertoire.

“In many ways, technology and A.I. are moving faster than real life,” Bird said. “We’re struggling to catch up, and the impact that that has on us both as individuals and as companies is the need to continually reskill and upskill.” 

The “we” in question is extraordinarily broad; Bird says employees across sectors, including in government and medicine, opt in for Pearson’s online courses. Program titles include “Introducing Machine Learning,” “Pragmatic A.I.: An Introduction to Cloud-Based Machine Learning,” and “Artificial Intelligence: Structures and Strategies for Complex Problem Solving.”

Of course, these offerings mean that Bird has good reason to advocate for workers boosting their skills. He’s right about one thing, though: A.I. development is on a runaway tear, with developments emerging faster than most people could possibly keep pace with. In 2022 alone, OpenAI launched the now-ubiquitous ChatGPT and Google launched DeepMind, which predicted the structure of almost every known protein in the human body. 

But moving too quickly could bring potential disaster. Over a third of experts said the unmitigated growth could lead to “nuclear-level catastrophe.”

Needless to say, awareness of (if not expertise in) A.I. is vital, even in lower-stakes settings. Consider a bank whose leaders knew it needed to shift from retail banking into digital banking. “That [shift] would make all the retail bankers and the cashiers in the branches redundant,” Bird explained—invoking the popular, if overblown, fear of robots snapping up jobs. “Then they would go out and lose that job and hire cybersecurity experts.” 

But that decision would cost the bank a lot of money, Bird said, not to mention lost productivity. “If they ramp down their analog workforce, then they have to ramp up their digital workforce.”

A.I. widened the skills gap. Could it narrow it, too?

As of late, a skills gap between what companies want and what workers are trained to do has widened across sectors and the rapid proliferation of A.I. is no small part of it. More than a third (37%) of Gen Zers feel their education didn’t prepare them with the digital skills they need to advance in their careers, according to a Dell Technologies survey; 56% of Gen Z believes they have very basic to no digital skills education.

It’s not just workers who could be missing the boat. Embracing skills at scale requires the help of machine learning and A.I., Pete Schlampp, chief marketing officer and executive vice president of corporate growth at Workday, wrote for Fortune. If a company is looking at all its employees and trying to determine its current and future skills needs, doing so with spreadsheets or any other static, labor-intensive tool is “an impossible task.”

Pearson’s tools and modules can identify individuals that need reskilling, and the jobs that need modifying. The goal is always to add capabilities, not to cut jobs. “For example, if you’re an accountant, you already possess 25% of the skills you need to become a data scientist,” Bird said. “So we only need to reskill a bit; you have some of the basic core competences to take you from Job A to Job B.”

Those core competencies, ideally, are the interesting and human skills that robots can’t replace. That’s what Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft—which is invested heavily in OpenAI—has said. If executed correctly, A.I. in the workplace wouldn’t threaten anything creative; Nadella says it should just get rid of the “drudgery”. 

But the commercial advent of A.I. has already transformed some workplaces and reset expectations of productivity. Per an April 2023 study from MIT and Stanford, generative A.I. tools like ChatGPT could make workers nearly 14% more productive and help novice or low-skilled employees work 35% faster than they would have otherwise. Some say ChatGPT and its ilk could soon even rival the Internet. It’s no wonder a recent Microsoft report found that mastering the basics and applications of A.I. is going to be critical to landing jobs in the future. 

Hopefully, A.I. applications remain reasonable and kept in check. Better to outsource rote paperwork than to descend into nuclear warfare.

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