AI, Automation and In-Demand Skills for a Post-Pandemic World

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​After the initial shock felt around the globe, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic caused companies of all shapes and sizes to re-evaluate how they did business and decide whether the systems they had in place were helping—or hindering—their survival. Some companies were able to meet customer needs quickly by shifting retail operations, scaling up production, streamlining slow or complex processes, or switching manufacturing of goods to need-based items. Many were forced to take a hard look at their legacy systems and make necessary changes in order to survive and meet increasing customer demands—despite stretched resources and systems that often couldn’t keep up.

As a response to these “business as usual” disruptions in the labor market, investments in AI platforms have significantly increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Many companies realized their existing systems and processes could not scale to meet the increasing demands caused by the pandemic. As they discovered gaps in their digital transformation initiatives, “it became clear that AI and automation were the only solutions able to perform urgent jobs at scale,” said Brian Solis, global innovation evangelist at Salesforce. According to World Economic Forum’s “The Future of Jobs Report 2020,” 50 percent of businesses say COVID-19 has pushed them to accelerate automation in their organization. The combination of more operations moving to the cloud and an increase in cyberattacks has also led to a demand for skills and roles that help to modernize and strengthen organizations’ cybersecurity protections.

The Business Value of AI and Automation in Our Current World

The increasing adoption of AI and automation hasn’t been borne out of desperation; the pandemic was simply the catalyst that sped up the inevitable. AI, after all, offers a host of potential benefits to organizations, including adding value to business workflows, enhancing the customer experience, and augmenting employee capabilities.

As our shift to a digital-first world continues amid rapid shifts in employee and customer behavior caused by COVID-19, data will continue to play an essential role in an organization’s success, impacting everything from fraud prevention to frictionless experiences. “Effectively harnessing this data requires modern data management platforms to tap into the voice of the customer to gain real-time context, sentiment and sensitive insight,” research analyst Simon Robinson says.

As companies are under pressure to shorten software cycles, the pressing need for AI will continue to expand across organizations. AI has the ability to bring new efficiencies to every stage of the software development cycle. It can iterate on current processes to quickly ramp up output, significantly shorten project timelines, and drive efficiency, value, and productivity for businesses. AI is already being used to automate rote tasks to free up workers’ time so that they can focus on higher-level, human-driven, cognitive tasks. As Leah Belsky, CEO at Coursera, said, “As companies navigate accelerated digital transformation caused by the pandemic, we will see an increased emphasis on driving technology and data science literacy across the entire organization, not just technical teams.”

An Increased Need for Skilled Workers to Meet the Demands of AI

AI, however, cannot go it alone. Humans have unique skills and capabilities that robots lack, and people with the right skills will be needed to close the loop. AI can learn from data, but it has a limited ability to draw conclusions based on a given action. It cannot be creative, code software, make moral decisions, or arrive at final decisions independently. Humans, of course, can do all of these things. Automated technologies—when working in conjunction with human abilities—have great potential to help businesses become more human themselves and deliver increased value to the customer experience both now and in a post-pandemic world.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting pressure on businesses to instantly alter their processes (and for some, even their core business model) have pushed out any remaining perception of AI in the shadows into a mainstream part of the everyday workplace. Companies are now in need of workers with emerging skills and the ability to lead more complex AI projects and meet the demands of a quickly evolving labor market. Hiring for e-commerce workers, for example, grew 73 percent year-over-year, according to LinkedIn’s “Jobs on the Rise” report, which looked at the career categories that have seen the highest year-on-year growth rates in hiring from April 2020 to October 2020.

With this large push comes a need for talent who can successfully scale these operations on the back end. Though it’s true that some jobs will be displaced by widespread adoption of AI, the overall projections for job creation in the next five years are still higher than those of job losses, according to World Economic Forum. Most of today’s jobs will still exist, even if they are fundamentally changed in task content and form. AI will largely replace processes—not jobs.

As AI evolves, workers must evolve with it, often taking on new roles or new iterations of their current roles. Workers will also need to shift knowledge from production to increased deployment of AI in the field. As drones, robots, and other AI-powered elements of the supply chain emerge, new skillsets for workers to successfully manage and maintain these machines are becoming more necessary as well. An estimated 50 percent of currently employed workers will need reskilling by 2025 to meet the needs of a changing labor market—and this will demand a significant expansion of mid-career reskilling and upskilling from employers, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report.

In-Demand Skills and Roles in an Increasingly AI-Powered World

Workers with skills under the AI umbrella are in extremely high demand—and the types of roles needed continue to grow as AI capabilities expand. Hiring for AI practitioners grew 32 percent between 2019 and 2020, according to LinkedIn’s “Jobs on the Rise” report. The top in-demand job titles related to AI practitioners include machine learning engineer; artificial intelligence specialist; and machine learning researcher. And according to World Economic Forum’s report, the roles identified as being in highest demand in the digital communications and information technology industry include, in order of frequency, AI and machine learning specialists, data analysts and scientists, big data specialists, information security analysts, and process automation specialists.

Businesses are now looking for workers who can integrate AI with automation, and experts in machine learning are also in demand as companies deploy more algorithms into production, which requires more ongoing maintenance. Cybersecurity skills for the cloud are increasingly in demand as well, leading to an influx of roles in DevOps, infrastructure, and cybersecurity. “In 2021, we expect to see a sharp increase in demand for tech talent that has a unique skillset spanning both DevOps and Security operations,” said Jon Clay, director of global threat communications at Trend Micro.

Data analysts and data scientists are two of the most in-demand roles in AI, though their functions are quite different. Data analysts answer specific business questions (e.g., “What are the demographics of our most engaged customers?”) and need to know how to organize and sort data to help a business make better-informed decisions. Data scientists, on the other hand, focus more acutely on the predictive analytics subset of data. They formulate and test hypotheses, and form organizational and business insights from their findings. “Data scientists are too often busy with tasks like data preparation, feature engineering, and modeling,” says Dr. Justin Silver, an AI strategist at digital commerce systems maker PROS. “As these tasks become augmented with tools that help automate these steps, we’ll see data scientists trade routine tasks for time spent on deeper, strategic approaches that will make them invaluable resources.

Finding the Right Skills to Support the Push for AI

Nearly all—95 percent—of the companies surveyed in World Economic Forum’s report said they are adopting AI in their organization, and 39.5 percent of companies surveyed said they planned to expand their current workforce due to technological integration or automation. Yet, when asked what was a barrier to adoption of new technologies, 60 percent of the companies said skills gaps in the local labor market, 55 percent said the inability to attract specialized talent, and 45 percent said skills gaps among the organization’s leadership.

To widen the candidate pool and increase the likelihood of finding the right talent, employers are looking outside their typical desired skill sets and sharpening their focus on soft skills. According to World Economic Forum’s report, the top five emerging skills identified within U.S. organizations, in order of frequency, are analytical thinking and innovation; technology design and programming; complex problem-solving; active learning and learning strategies; and resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility. Alyssa Miller, cybersecurity advocate at Snyk, said she expects the cybersecurity skills gap to close as employers look to transferable skills over certifications. “Employers will begin to shift their mindset when it comes to hiring and identify relevant soft skills that are transferable to the cybersecurity sector and focus on hiring from those groups.”

In addition to transferable skills, many businesses are also turning to contract workers and interim executives to fill immediate and emerging skill gaps. Contract workers offer many benefits to organizations, including increased flexibility in an uncertain climate. They can help fill specialized skills while employers continue to shape their long-term staffing needs. Forty-one percent of businesses surveyed in World Economic Forum’s report plan to expand their use of contractors for task-specialized work, and 34 percent plan to expand their workforce due to technology integration.

Preparing for a Post-Pandemic Future

Setting your organization up for success with the right planning is crucial as we prepare for a post-pandemic world. It’s important for companies to understand which roles and skills are integral to their developing AI capabilities before they start to implement anything new—but determining this without consulting expert guidance can result in wasted time and money, and cause a drain on current employees’ morale.

Partnering with hiring specialists who are experts in matching the right candidate to your organization’s specific skill needs and culture fit can help get you on solid footing as you navigate a constantly changing hiring landscape. Reach out to us today to get the conversation started.

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