AI adoption, labor shortage accelerate need for upskilling

Nuro Inc., a company that makes autonomous delivery vehicles for goods like pizza, relies on AI and specialized engineering skills to build and maintain its fleet. How it meets its labor needs demonstrates one of the key ways AI is impacting the workforce and upskilling.

Nuro’s self-driving delivery vehicles reportedly reduce the need for delivery staff. At the same time, with headquarters in Mountain View, California, and a manufacturing facility in Las Vegas, the company is creating new jobs that require higher skill levels.

While AI technologies may have the potential to destroy jobs, this is not the case. Unemployment remains at record lows and job vacancies remain high. The bigger problem facing the workforce is upskilling employees to tackle new types of jobs that AI has created, according to some of the panelists at a recent Brookings Institution forum on AI and upskilling.

Nuro’s work is based on software and AI learning models that use autonomous vehicle systems for perception, prediction and planning. About 30% of the engineers who develop the technologies are on visas due to the US labor shortage, said panelist David Estrada, Nuro’s chief legal and policy officer.

But Nuro also trains potential job candidates in the US. Last year, it partnered with a community college to launch a course to train people to become automotive technicians so they “get the skills needed to get a job with us,” Estrada said.

An image of an autonomous delivery vehicle in front of a house.
An autonomous delivery vehicle from Nuro.

Economists measure the level of automation in the economy using labor productivity as a proxy for automation. The more work is automated, the more an employee can get done in an hour at the workplace, said panelist Gad Levanon, chief economist at the Burning Glass Institute. The non-profit institute was founded by Emsi Burning Glass, a work analysis company.

Productivity growth numbers are disappointing, however, according to Levanon. “In the decade leading up to the pandemic, we had the weakest labor productivity in US history,” he said. There were hopes that the adoption of digital technologies, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, would boost productivity growth, “but so far we haven’t seen it,” he added.

It seems paradoxical that professions are not disappearing and yet so much is changing.

Morgan FrankAssistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Computing and Information

The main reason for the lack of productivity gains is the increasing difficulty for companies to fully replace labor with technology, Levanon said. Jobs that could be entirely replaced by technology were automated more than a decade ago, he said.

But the lack of productivity gains doesn’t mean the technology isn’t bringing about rapid changes, said panelist Morgan Frank, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information. “It seems kind of paradoxical that professions aren’t going away and yet so much is changing,” he said.

Rapid technological changes “can still generate costs, even if [they don’t] Create unemployment,” Frank said. An example might be a worker struggling to keep up with skills that are in demand. It’s a constant reskilling and upskilling effort, he said.

Levanon said skills in business-related jobs like marketing, sales and human resources are changing rapidly. The underlying systems for these positions are becoming more data-centric, “but to make any meaningful use of this data requires people in the departments who know how to use it,” he said.

Another trend is that, according to Levanon, the number of job postings that require a bachelor’s degree is declining. He said wage growth for jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree is much stronger than for jobs that require a degree.

Levanon said the omission of the bachelor’s requirement was in some cases a response to labor shortages.

“If you’re desperate to find someone, you’re willing to compromise on requirements,” he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He has worked as a corporate IT reporter for more than two decades.

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