Ensuring graduates are adding value in an age of AI

By Professor David Taylor

The precise rate of AI adoption in South Africa is unknown. Some reports suggest half of the country’s larger businesses are actively plugging in, while others indicate that South African companies are slower on the uptake. Regardless, the transition to a workplace where AI has a significant role to play is underway and is having a knock-on effect on the skills required by business – especially at entry-level.

“During this transition, fewer positions will be available, and we will see a significant shift in skills requirements for entry-level positions,” commented World Wide Worx MD and 4IR project principal, Arthur Goldstuck, recently. “This, of course, is the fundamental challenge of the 4IR (fourth industrial revolution).”

This issue is playing out particularly vividly in the global financial services sector, which, according to a McKinsey report, is one of the leading adopters of AI and Machine Learning.

From banking to trading, AI is reducing the time it takes to generate reports, analyse risks and rewards, make decisions, and monitor financial health. AI is used to give more accurate, personalised advice, combat fraud, automate savings, make indecipherable data intelligible for service providers and their customers, and make self-help options viable, practical, and safe. These are many of the skills that financial services graduates are traditionally trained to do.

University graduates today are stepping into a world where they will be working alongside AI, and they will need a different skillset – and mindset – to do so. Research is identifying a “growth mindset” as a key requirement in workplaces where humans and computers work side by side. A term coined by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck, having a growth mindset means that you believe your talents can be developed (through hard work, effective strategies, and input from others). By contrast, if you have a fixed mindset, you believe your talents are innate gifts. Those with a growth mindset tend to perform better in the modern workplace because they “worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning.” They don’t get as easily knocked back by criticism or failure because they are less defensive, quicker to admit error and move on, and more likely to share and collaborate.

The good news is that while developing a growth mindset is not easy (it seems that a fixed mindset is often the default setting for our brains) – it can be done. And it starts with helping individuals to become more self-aware.

“To remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with [our] triggers,” says Dweck. “Many managers and executives have benefited from learning to recognize when their fixed-mindset “persona” shows up and what it says to make them feel threatened or defensive. Most importantly, over time, they have learned to talk back to it, persuading it to collaborate with them as they pursue challenging goals.”

It falls to educators – from primary school through to university – to make sure that we are preparing our students for the future world of work. It is our responsibility to develop not only the technical skills and competencies they need but also the self-awareness and associated mindsets that will make them more resilient and adaptive. Furthermore, we will have to cooperate more closely with industry recruiters to understand their precise needs with regards to talent. This is the premise upon which the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at the University of Cape Town was founded more than five years ago.

Against a backdrop of skills shortages, 8.3% of graduates are reportedly struggling to find jobs in the current economy; this suggests that academic institutions and the world of work and business are somewhat misaligned. Realignment is essential for the survival of academia, industry and the economy. And in the age of AI, this challenge is magnified.

The World Economic Forum estimates that automation will displace 75 million jobs worldwide by 2022, but that with sufficient economic growth, innovation, and investment – especially in wise human capital development – there can be enough new job creation to offset the impact of automation.

AI can’t do everything. It (currently) cannot make moral decisions or explain how it came up with a particular solution. It is essentially subordinate to its algorithm and generally doesn’t act in ways that are outside of its ‘training’. It is these functions that graduates will need to excel.

We must embrace this imperative and act together systemically to find the best of traditional education and re-wire it to emerging requirements and trends in the workplace so that graduates can complement the role of AI and maximise its benefits for consumers and the economy.

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