One of the most pressing questions on the minds of consumer goods executives took center stage last week as the National AI Advisory Committee (NAIAC) met to discuss the evolving state of U.S. artificial intelligence competitiveness and what AI means for the future of work — including how to transition it to become just as pervasive as electricity.
Held at the SAS headquarters in Cary, N.C., NAIAC committee members met within a working group to mull over the question of jobs, skills, opportunities, and apprehensions surrounding AI-enabled workforce solutions. As part of this, committee members homed in on the growing presence of AI in working lives and opened the floor for questions from the public about how to best train for a more automated future.
Education and skilling were at the forefront of attendees' minds, and Reggie Townsend, SAS data ethics practice director, outlined the importance of first understanding the problem in order to solve it.
“We absolutely have an interest in not just K-12 education and how they might be impacted or affected,” he said, “but also in the ancillary education opportunities, as well your public and public universities or community colleges, your apprenticeship programs and coding camps — all these sorts of places that are hotbeds for skills development that might contribute to this AI era.”
Townsend added that these skills would not only be relevant for those who are seeking occupations in the tech space, but also for people who will be using the technology at work — or feeling its impacts. To illustrate this point further, he drew a compelling parallel between AI and electricity.
“We all understand that we can plug something into the wall and it generates enough power for us, for our machines or devices. AI as a ubiquitous technology will show up in our lives similarly,” he said. “So, yes, we need to train some people to be engineers, electrical engineers and know how to deal with power generation. Just like we're going to have to train people to know how to deal with data, build models, and understand the infrastructure. But, by and large, most people just use electricity, right?”
The growing wave of AI dovetails with the increase in other digital competencies, which many CGs have already been preparing for and investing in, including through boot camps and similar upskilling programs. Levi Straus & Co, for example, has launched a machine learning boot camp featuring a digital upskilling portfolio with two dimensions — audience and skill set — that teaches employees valuable skills such as Python script writing and interpreting statistics.
In a recent conversation with CGT, Anne Kotzorek, managing director, talent and organization lead for Accenture’s consumer goods and services practice, emphasized that these upskilling programs should be thought about as long-term investments, not short-term solutions.
“Lifelong learning and digital upskilling should be key elements for culture and long-term growth plans — not just a momentary answer to an HR or recruiting issue,” she shared. “It helps motivate and give teams the confidence to grow together.”
Given the ubiquity of AI-based technologies, continuous learning initiatives designed to match the rate of change are now a necessity across the workforce – whether a role has a particular digital responsibility or not.
Speaking at CES recently, Steve Koenig, VP of research of the Consumer Technology Association, called humans the “nice to have” component of the future commerce puzzle, as everything from fulfillment to farms to factories become smarter and supported by cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and automation.
Understandably, concerns exist about what this will mean for the retail and consumer goods industries as a whole. And while many conversations currently focus on how automation can free associates up for value-added tasks — such as interacting with customers — it’s still important to recognize that significant upheavals are on the horizon for the retail workforce and that effective change management will be crucial to navigating these shifts.
Closing out the Q&A portion of the event, James Manyika, NAIAC chair and senior partner emeritus at McKinsey & Company spoke to this concern, noting it will require both the transition of skills and occupations: “Never mind the skill, it just takes time for a whole bunch of reasons. And then the other question you’re going to have to grapple with is the wage effects of this transition.”