For the vast majority of today’s workers, AI won’t eliminate their job altogether. The much more likely outcome: They’ll be replaced by another person—one who knows AI better than they do.
That’s one of the primary findings from online learning platform Springboard’s new report, The State of the Workforce Skills Gap, released Wednesday, which surveyed over 1,000 corporate professionals about their ability to do their jobs.
Despite the prominence of AI across industries, businesses, on the whole, “are faltering when it comes to keeping pace with advancements,” the report reads. After OpenAI launched ChatGPT publicly in November 2022, businesses “scrambled to react” to its instant widespread use. And more than a year later, most firms have yet to devise an official playbook on how much AI should be used day-to-day—-and in what way. This lack of clear direction has left many workers adrift and liable to fall behind.
That’s particularly bad news, because the survey also revealed that AI/machine learning is one of leaders’ most in-demand hard skills—over a third (36%) said their companies need workers with AI expertise. The mismatch: nearly 4 in 5 (79%) of junior employees say they can’t keep pace with the dizzying rate of technological change.
“A lot of leaders know they need their employee base to understand AI, but no one knows how to teach them,” Springboard CEO Gautam Tambay tells Fortune.
Those overwhelmed junior workers aren’t imagining things. Andy Bird, CEO of education giant Pearson, last year said AI is moving “faster than real life.” Pearson now offers numerous programs teaching workers different applications of AI, because, Bird said, most workers have no choice but to become AI-fluent. “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,” Bird said.
Last summer, Roger Lee, the startup founder who tracks tech layoffs on Layoffs.fyi., coined the term “A.I. premium” to refer to the extra compensation workers with AI chops have been able to command. Indeed, a software engineer who specializes in AI or machine learning can expect a 12% higher salary than an engineer who doesn’t, Lee said last year. That disparity is only set to grow as tech becomes more advanced, and fewer and fewer workers prove to be up to the task.
No turning back now
The dream of widespread AI reached an inflection point in 2023, the report says, when many white-collar professionals began regularly experimenting with the tech in their jobs—and they haven’t looked back since. “As we become more adept at integrating machine assistance into all aspects of our lives, workers are bound to start uncovering job-related use cases,” it wrote. “Organizations must take the lead in equipping their workers with the tools and training they need to fully leverage emerging technologies the moment they enter the market.” This would stand to both boost job productivity and improve workers’ AI know-how for the future.
“This is not the first time a massive wave of tech has come through and scared everyone,” Tambay says, noting that it has “been the case over centuries.”
“Yes, it will change everything, and people who can use it more effectively will be more successful—that’s what happened with the Industrial Revolution,” he says. “It’s not different, but it is big.”
As for the hand-wringing over particularly advanced machine learning supplanting human ingenuity, Tambay says not so fast. “We still need human beings to think strategically and make decisions, and AI will assist that, but it needs humans to provide a layer of judgment on top of AI’s output.”
Ultimately, he says, businesses are human-created organizations serving human needs. “Maybe they deploy AI as a tool to serve that need, but at the end of the day, understanding your human customer’s emotions is crucial.” Until that’s no longer the case—and humans are supplanted by AI in their personal lives as well as their jobs—soft skills like strategic and critical thinking will be vital, he says.
While “the future of white collar work is going to be different, but jobs won’t disappear en masse,” according to Joseph Fuller, the co-leader of Harvard’s Managing the Future of Work initiative. “Some skills will always be crucial, so it’s important to remain agile and continually look for ways of upskilling and not fearing the future.”
Despite their struggle to keep pace with it, many junior employees nonetheless view AI favorably—and are eager to use more of it. Forty percent believe AI will help them do their jobs faster and better. That sentiment is even stronger (51%) among managers, who see AI as a golden bullet for efficiency and process automation.
The onus is on companies to approach AI adoption in the workplace urgently and transparently, Springboard advises. Employees already know it’ll bring significant changes to the way they work, so upskilling opportunities supporting AI literacy will both cushion those concerns and help close the ever-deepening skills gap.