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Preparing Students for the AI-Enhanced Workforce

Our graduating and certificate-completing students need documented generative AI skills, and they need them now.

The common adage repeated again and again is that AI will not take your job; a person with AI skills will replace you. The learners we are teaching this fall who will be entering, re-entering or seeking advancement in the workforce at the end of the year or in the spring must become demonstrably skilled in using generative AI. The vast majority of white-collar jobs will demand the efficiencies and flexibilities defined by generative AI now and in the future. As higher education institutions, we will be called upon to document and validate generative AI skills.

Writing online in SHRM HR Topics, Kathy Gurchieck reports,

“Workers in the U.S. and around the world are using generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) tools such as ChatGPT for a variety of tasks. And that’s a problem. Business leaders don’t think their teams have the necessary GenAI skills to use these tools, workers say they don’t have the necessary skills and HR managers are anticipating a GenAI skills gap, according to various surveys. In fact, 62 percent of 4,135 full-time workers surveyed in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. said they lack the skills to effectively and safely use GenAI, 67 percent expect their employers to train them, and 66 percent said that’s not happening, according to Salesforce’s Generative AI Snapshot Research Series.”

Students themselves recognize the future of their careers is dependent on their knowledge and facility with applying generative AI to their jobs. Vala Afshar, writing in ZD Net, reports, “Research suggests students want to be prepared for the future of work. Nearly half (47%) of students reported selecting their institution for career prospects, but only 11% felt very prepared for work. Students who feel well-prepared are four times more likely to have a great university experience. In addition, nearly half of students (49%) plan to continue learning through a higher education institution after graduating.”

The timeline for demand for generative AI–competent workers is accelerating. In their July 26 report on “Generative AI and the Future of Work in America,” McKinsey reports, “All of this means that automation is about to affect a wider set of work activities involving expertise, interaction with people, and creativity. The timeline for automation adoption could be sharply accelerated. Without generative AI, our research estimated, automation could take over tasks accounting for 21.5 percent of the hours worked in the US economy by 2030. With it, that share has now jumped to 29.5 percent.”

This demands that we integrate the appropriate skills and knowledge into our learning outcomes for classes and for programs. In addition, learners will be best served if we can provide opportunities for them to build portfolios of meaningful and relevant generative AI activities. These should be designed so that they can be assessed by our professors as well as HR departments and hiring managers at companies, agencies, and associations.

So, how do we implement practices that will best enable our students to compete for entry-level and advanced jobs that require generative AI knowledge and skills? And how do we ensure that we are providing them with the latest information that is relevant to the positions they are most likely to seek?

We need a coordinated and streamlined process to implement as soon as possible. Some steps that will be important to include are:

  1. First, we need to identify baseline information and skills that are relevant in almost every field. We should test the list of these skills with our own university HR department as well as HR offices at local and regional employers of our graduates and certificate completers. These will include familiarity with how generative AI works and basic experience in formulating effective prompts for a range of bots and apps that are most common at the time. These topics could be integrated into a self-paced, noncredit series of modules that comprise a basic introduction to generative AI. Ideally, these would begin to be offered this fall semester so that upcoming completers would be able to finish the modules before they apply for jobs. The program should include a portfolio of the learner’s work that would be associated with a badge or certification. The portfolio will offer prospective employers samples to examine in order to make informed hiring decisions. It is important that annual or semiannual module updates are provided, and that learners be permitted to complete the updates in order to keep their certificate relevant and up to date. They could be provided as stand-alone electives or integrated into relevant courses.
  2. Each college and, in many cases, each academic department should invite HR personnel from local and regional employers of their graduates and certificate completers to campus meetings. Relevant national employers could be invited to Zoom sessions. In these meetings, the university personnel can establish common practices and expectations for generative AI knowledge and skills tied to specified ranges of positions. These can then be used to create customized modules for learners seeking employment in those positions. A validated portfolio of the learners’ work can be associated with the activities.
  3. In some cases, it may make sense to integrate such generative AI learning modules into existing senior capstone classes that will assure that the material is as relevant and timely as possible to be taken immediately before students pursue employment interviews.
  4. The modules that comprise a certificate in this area should be reviewed and updated at least annually to ensure they are tied to the latest practices and software.
  5. Review committee meetings should be held with the local, regional and national employers every semester or year to ensure that the practices, skills and knowledge that are captured in the learning outcomes are still relevant and to the point. Such an approach may be adapted to meet evolving departmental and institutional needs.

What is your institution doing to ensure that learners are qualified to optimally use generative AI in the workplace? This is a top priority for students and employers; is it a top priority for your university? What can you do to help to advance this initiative?


This article was originally published in InsideHigherEd’s Transforming Teaching and Learning Blog. 

A man (Ray Schroeder) is dressed in a suit with a blue tie and wearing glasses.

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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