Investments needed to retrain workers to adapt to AI

Investments needed to retrain workers to adapt to AI

Kyle Wardwell

By Kyle Wardwell

Between 2016 and 2030, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation may displace up to 800 million workers globally, according to estimates and modeling done by McKinsey & Company. While that number sits at the highest end of estimates, it does paint a narrative of what immense transformations are already taking place, even further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The narrative of AI, rather automation, replacing human capital had long been prophesied by Karl Marx. While within business circles, the utterance of Marx in corridors may be seldom heard, what may surprise most is not that Marx was fervent about preventing such an eventuality.

He knew well the disruption it would cause to the labor market, to the workforce and class whose jobs were most likely to be lost.

“As soon as labor in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labor time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value,” he wrote.

It is in that sense, that this automation, this adoption of AI that would be able to “free” workers, as they would no longer be tied down to what a machine may be able to accomplish for them. While that may be a utopian and a simplistic depiction of this metamorphosis that is ongoing now, it does highlight the immediate need to find a way to transform the labor market to prevent further job losses and how to prepare for this revolution.

This transformation can already be seen all over Korea ― from the adoption of ordering kiosks at fast food restaurants, to the increased investments in “smart factories.” But what can we do to minimize this loss of jobs and minimize the consequential unemployment?

Investments needed to retrain workers to adapt to AI

President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during an event held to commemorate the anniversary of his announcement on artificial intelligence-oriented policies at KINTEX in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, in this November 2020 file photo. Joint Press Corps

It first requires redirecting investments into retraining workers in tech and the development of such equipment and machinery as to complement, not to solely replace. There will still always be a need for those to build these machines, to dictate and monitor how they operate. Such skills will be even more in demand, and investment by the government and educational institutions will have to match that pace.

It is also imperative to create an ecosystem with enterprises to not alienate workers or work to replace them, but find out what companies need for present and future skills, and to offer programs to retrain workers. While AI and automation will inevitably reduce the need for certain skills and workers, it also has the chance to create new opportunities, new markets and new synergy.

To capture this moment, institutions need to encourage and build links between them and companies that can work in tandem for the skills that will be needed, to mitigate.

AI also has the chance to meet the needs of changing demographics, society shifts and need. For example, it can be a boon for the healthcare industry, which often struggles with a shortfall of staff.

As Korea, and a number of advanced economics alike, have a rapidly ageing population, it is also an opportunity to help ease the burden on the increasing expenditures of healthcare for this increasing demographic, but also ease the social and emotional costs that accompany this shift.

How fast and to what extent AI and automation will eat away at the labor market, is unknown. What is certain though is that with careful adaption to these ever-changing circumstances, to working closely with industries to what skills are and will be needed, investments can be made to not only retrain workers, but to prepare both the new generation of workers for this transformation.

To adapt AI for the needs to the public, to benefit, and to “free” the burdens they can by making AI a welcome presence and, while also making sure that new industries and jobs can be created from AI and all that follows.

It is a chance to create new frontiers, just as the textile mills that once employed millions in the U.S. and the U.K. during their industrial revolutions, in the stead of the lost jobs to automation, sprouted new industries and opportunities. AI has the chance to do the same.

Kyle Wardwell is a student at Sungkyunkwan University’s Graduate School of Business.

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