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Digital skills in the age of artificial intelligence


Just a few decades ago, the idea of machines that could emulate human intelligence and perform complex tasks was reserved for the domain of science fiction. Nevertheless, today, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that’s driven by artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, AI is now a reality that could have a profound impact on industries, transforming job markets and redefining the skills needed to succeed in the digital age.

As highlighted by the World Economic Forum (2023a), the question is not only about the jobs that will be taken away by AI but also about the jobs that will be created. Here, by AI, we refer to the broad area of computer science that deals with the creation of intelligent machines capable of performing complex tasks that typically require human intelligence (i.e. almost anything from simple algorithms to machine and deep learning systems). More precisely, AI can perform a wide range of tasks, from recognising images to making decisions based on data, and it can learn and adapt to new information.

Artificial intelligence in the labour market

The use of algorithms and intelligent machines is increasingly being integrated into our day-to-day lives, and digital skills are crucial to adapt and grow in the labour market.

Analysis by the World Economic Forum (2023a) highlighted the tasks and occupations with the highest potential for automation. Following this, one of the main concerns about AI and labour market opportunities is the loss of jobs. Jobs most at risk are those based on repetitive tasks and standardised procedures (e.g., recording and managing information) with a limited relational or specialised component. AI has already demonstrated a fairly high level of competence in performing these tasks.

Furthermore, AI can also be seen as a tool that can potentially help with many of the tasks that professionals have to perform in their daily activities. Just to give a few examples, AI can have vast implications for data analysis and forecasting in fields such as finance and marketing, where the ability to process vast amounts of data quickly is an asset. AI could also be a useful tool in healthcare to help with medical diagnoses, treatment recommendations, clinical practices, and biomedical applications (Yu et al. 2018). The same is true in education, where AI can enhance the learning experience by influencing teaching practices and teacher collaboration and through more revolutionary processes regarding the embedding of technology in students' lives (Roll & Wylie 2016).

AI could also have a significant impact on job development in several fields by introducing the element of interaction between humans and machines. According to the Future of Jobs Report (World Economic Forum 2023b), over the next five years, more than 75% of companies will try to adopt technologies related to big data, cloud computing, and AI features. The development of these new technologies will undoubtedly change the nature of the labour market, but the final result does not necessarily mean fewer jobs. The World Economic Forum (2023a) has identified at least four groups of emerging roles that could be positively impacted by AI’s development:

  • AI model and prompt engineers;
  • AI content creators;
  • Data curators and trainers;
  • Ethics and governance specialists.

It should be added that AI-related skills can be a powerful resource in the public sector since digital transformation is a process that also affects public administration; there could hence be an increasing demand for professionals who can combine knowledge of the digital world with skills in the socio-organisational and political-administrative fields.

Thus far, we’ve been talking about the future, but what is the current situation? How many vacancies are currently available in Western countries? A recent working paper by OECD (Borgonovi et al. 2023) has analysed online job listings in 14 OECD countries, showing that AI vacancies still represent a small percentage of all vacancies posted online, but with a remarkable increase between 2019 and 2022. Unsurprisingly, demand for AI-related jobs is highly concentrated in specific sectors, such as ICT and professional services, and the most in-demand skills are related to machine learning.

Top AI employers are not only interested in technical skills, but also in hiring professionals with leadership, management, and problem-solving skills (OECD 2023). OECD policy analysts (OECD 2022) stressed that, with the broader adoption of AI in society and the workplace, socio-emotional skills are expected to be crucial in future labour markets. Indeed, critical thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, and effective communication are becoming increasingly important. Soft skills further complement digital skills, enabling individuals to navigate complex, ever-changing work environments. By combining digital skills and soft skills, individuals can become well-rounded professionals ready to tackle the challenges and opportunities presented by AI.

Preparing for the future

The development of AI is not an unforeseen event, and policymakers should have the time and tools to navigate these changes to mitigate the potential negative consequences in terms of job displacement. A need for action is implicitly requested by people in OECD countries who declare they are worried about the development of AI over the next two decades (OECD 2023a).

The first problem that has to be considered is that low-educated workers are those employed in occupations more at risk of automation. This ties in closely with my EPALE blog post (Vergolini 2023) on the changing skills needs, and the suggestion to focus on lifelong learning with incentives for both workers and employers is still valid. Getting a little more specific, the first step has to be done through "traditional education", and universities are offering more and more bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field of data science with an interdisciplinary approach.

Obviously, university courses are not designed for adults in need of reskilling and upskilling. For them, there are at least two other possibilities. The first is related to "alternative credentials", which are defined by Kato et alii (2020, 8) "as credentials that are not recognised as standalone formal educational qualifications by relevant national education authorities". They encompass academic and professional certificates as well as digital badges and are also called micro-credentials. The Council of the European Union recommended the development of micro-credentials as a tool for supporting lifelong learning and employability (OECD 2023b). Courses offering digital skills (e.g., data analysis, programming, digital marketing, cybersecurity) may be made available through online platforms, thus increasing flexibility and affordability. These courses can be organised by public authorities, recruitment companies, and private firms. For example, large tech companies (e.g., Amazon, Google, IBM) are at the forefront of organising alternative credential programmes in the AI field.

Another possibility is the use of open-source learning resources, including tutorials, forums and documentation; in this respect, communities such as GitHub can be very useful for those looking to improve their AI skills. However, one of the main limitations here is that, in order to take full advantage of open-source tools, the participant needs to have pre-existing knowledge higher than basic or entry levels.


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