Is AI the answer to the upcoming COVID-19 skills gap?

If sustained economic growth is to be achieved post-COVID-19, something must be done to tackle the skills gap it has caused

A task force of the G20 research and policy advice network, Think20 (T20), warns that immediate action is needed to fix a looming skills gap to mitigate potential long-term risks caused by the pandemic.

With economies reeling from the repercussions of COVID-19, T20 research has highlighted it is not only the transition from education to employment that must be reformed but also that the skills gap of those already within work.

One possible solution is to use artificial intelligence (AI) based learning technologies, says T20 to overcome current educational challenges and ensuring existing and future employees are prepared to be a member of the workforce of today and tomorrow.

Bouncing back from COVID-19

Recommendations laid out within twelve research-based T20 Policy Briefs outline how G20 member countries can address their challenges to ensure economies can recover and achieve sustained growth, as the increased use of AI changes the employment landscape in the digital age.

Task Force 6 (TF6) has outlined four key recommendations G20 member countries can adopt to utilise AI-based learning as a viable solution to the generational skills gap. There are:

  • embracing and regulating industry micro-credentials
  • government funding for workplace learning in traditional sectors and the platform and gig economies
  • the promotion of AI as a learning aid and not in replacement of teachers
  • the promotion of innovative technical and vocational education training (TVET) institutions with the backing of quality control and licensing bodies.

Who has been impacted?

Implementing these solutions, however, may not be straightforward. When discussing the immediate need for reforms, different generations need different things, says Heidi Alaskary, visiting senior research fellow, KFCRIS and lead co-chair of TF6: “The policies TF6 has chosen to focus on will have a direct impact on how we, as an international community, shape our immediate future. It is evident we are on the cusp of a significant global change and areas of reform, such as the reliance on AI, have shifted from being interesting concepts to becoming critical conversations that require urgent attention.

“COVID-19 has accelerated those issues that were already prevalent, revealing the varying skill gaps across all generations. The older, missing generation of over 35s would traditionally gain skills in one speciality area, with many people remaining on the same career path for life. It is this generation that must develop the agility to diversify their knowledge base and embrace data analysis if we are to ensure no-one is left behind, and fall victim to the skills gap.”

The youth generation, on the other hand, will have, on average, twelve discreet job roles throughout their lifetime. While they are technically savvy and well-versed in many of the skills future economies will require, they often lack the required resilience and soft skills the older generations have. It is now the responsibility of governments, industries and citizens to collaborate to humanise the technological process and bring balance to the future way of working.

Heidi Alaskary, visiting senior research fellow, KFCRIS and lead co-chair of TF6

The global pandemic has found us in a new technological age, but will also see more jobs lost, says Alaskary, “The rapid technological migration businesses have been forced to undertake during 2020 has highlighted the skill gap among over 35’s and the need to balance education reform between the youth population and the missing generation of adults whose jobs are being replaced by technology.”

The impact of AI on certain jobs is all too evident says Paul Grainger, co-director for the Centre for Educations and Work; Enterprise Lead for the Department of Education, Practice and Society at UCL Institute of Education; and co-chair of TF6. “Pre-COVID-19, the fourth industrial revolution was already rebalancing employment away from repetitive manual work, in favour of automated, AI-supported roles. Examples of this include robots replacing hospital porters, self-checkout systems in supermarkets and the high street, and online delivery reducing the demand for shop assistants, ultimately resulting in job losses.”

Will AI help the skills gap?

Global unemployment rates in May stood at 8.4% and could reach 9.4% by the end of 2020 as a result of COVID-19. In total, the virus could cause the equivalent of 195 million job losses. T20 predicts those economies heavily reliant on traditional service industries, such as retail and wholesale, food and accommodation, business services and administration, and manufacturing, which together add up to 37.5% of global employment, will be most negatively impacted.

Those dependent on manufacturing, however, will feel less of an impact compared to the other ILO-listed sectors as the demand for goods is still high. It is, however, not clear how extraction economies relying on mining and natural resources will perform as, for example, reduced travel has seen a decline in oil demand. The ILO also warns agriculture, the largest sector in most developing countries, is at risk owing to containment measures and risks of food insecurity are emerging.

Various AI-learning modes were identified by TF6 to bridge the skills gap and begin to reskill and upskill those across both demographics. Passive, program-based learning is not recommended for those looking to challenge the learner’s powers of concentration. While this method is cost-effective, it has been ranked by TF6 as the least effective. For educational institutions and businesses looking to fully embrace AI and provide the learner with a richer educational experience, a hybrid of human interaction and bespoke digital platform learning are optimal.

Discussing how the varying learning modes can be adopted, Grainger says: “Adapting in a society where human proximity is dangerous but where social interaction is still the preferred method of training and learning is a universal challenge. However, each country must work to identify and implement a solution that works for them, or they risk economic suffering in the long term. Whether skills are taught directly, funded by the government, or indirectly funded by the sectors themselves, will vary. For example, migrating university lectures online while still conducting seminars in-person, to ensure students are receiving the social interaction they require during the learning process, reduces the danger of COVID-19 transmission by 50%.

“For all generations, the secret to educating the unwilling is to make it a social act, and whether this is in person or via an immersive digital infrastructure will differ from country to country. However, the danger still prevails that if we don’t address the youth skill gap now, many countries will find themselves falling behind international growth figures as the nature of education and training has a direct impact on a country’s economy.”

While cost implications will continue to be a barrier for success for many, a challenge heightened by the economic implications of COVID-19, the only way in which countries can affect any long-lasting, significant changes and move comfortably into the future of work is with unified, global cooperation on minimum standards within technical and vocational training.

Rate This: