Upskilling in Uncertain Times: What Job Seekers Should Know in 2024
For the 2023-2024 academic year, we have 118 schools in our BSchools.org database and those that advertise with us are labeled “sponsor”. When you click on a sponsoring school or program, or fill out a form to request information from a sponsoring school, we may earn a commission. View our advertising disclosure for more details.
In 2022, the Great Resignation, which kicked off an era of abundant corporate job openings, high salaries, and enticing benefits packages, seemed to end as quickly as it began.
Since then, the pendulum has swung back in the other direction, with employers now back in the power seat. According to TIME, there’s currently an average of one job opening for every two applicants on LinkedIn, a significant difference from 2022, when the ratio was one-to-one. Over 1,000 tech companies laid off over 160,000 employees in 2022 and more than 250,000 in 2023. The biggest layoffs were at Google, Meta, Microsoft and Amazon. If there was any ambiguity about the meaning behind statements like that of Mark Zuckerberg, who coined Meta’s management theme for 2023 as the “year of efficiency,” there isn’t now.
Essential workers have had a completely different experience over the last couple of years. There have continued to be plentiful opportunities in construction and healthcare, and the trend is expected to continue into 2024. With the release of ChatGPT in late 2022, followed by a slew of other machine learning and generative AI software geared toward businesses, it’s hard not to wonder if—and how—this innovation is factoring into the white-collar worker’s plight.
The state of affairs raises questions about the future of desk jobs, the value of a four-year degree, and the responsibility of public and private parties in mediating the changing job landscape.
Meet the Expert: Susan Vroman, EdD
Dr. Susan Vroman is an organizational effectiveness and leadership development specialist and a lecturer at Bentley University. She is passionate about values-based leadership development, a major theme of her consulting work and writing. Her teaching interests include emotional intelligence, organizational development, and responsible leadership, among other managerial topics.
Outside the classroom, she contributes to publications including Harvard Business Review and Fast Company. Dr. Vroman earned her EdD from Northeastern University after graduating from Harvard with her EdM.
A Temperature Check on the Job Market
The main driver of the mass corporate layoffs of 2022 and 2023 was overly optimistic hiring sprees during the pandemic. At the time, company revenues had ballooned from electronic and e-commerce purchases but quickly deflated when lockdowns ended.
Additionally, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates—its usual answer to quelling an overstimulated economy and curbing inflation. This further hampered spending and by proxy, impacted corporate revenues, leading to cost-cutting measures like layoffs.
That said, some of the more recent layoffs may be related to the debut of generative AI tools aimed at businesses, which can create original content, such as text, data, code, charts, images, music, and video faster than humans at a much lower cost.
- Jasper, which can write articles, product descriptions, and promotional emails
- Amazon CodeWhisperer, which can write and troubleshoot code
- Hirevue, a recruitment suite that can screen candidates, send them text messages to schedule interviews, and host one-way video interviews
- Midjourney, which creates realistic illustrations from text prompts
Back in July, CNN reported a number of tech firms that cited AI as a reason for layoffs and hiring pauses, including Chegg and Dropbox.
Executives like Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM—who in May, said he expects the company will pause hiring for roles that can be automated in the near future—have faced backlash for their perceived callousness.
Krishna later backpedaled in an interview with Barrons, saying that while AI will indeed be incorporated into business operations in the future, it will ultimately “create more jobs than it takes away”—a sentiment so often parroted by tech leaders that it’s become a cliche.
Some other companies are making similar plans to that of IBM—if quietly—avoiding the hot seat. According to a survey from ResumeBuilder.com of 750 business leaders, 37 percent disclosed laying off workers in 2023 because they were no longer needed and four in 10 companies say AI will likely replace some employees in 2024.
A quarter of businesses already use or plan to use AI for recruiting, nearly one-third for writing code, and 29 percent for writing website copy, among many other categories, according to a 2023 Forbes Advisor survey. All in all, the vast majority of business owners (97 percent) believe that generative AI will positively affect operations in one way or another. And despite the chorus of CEO voices insisting that AI will do more good than harm, the “good” is still yet to be seen, at least as far as job seekers are concerned.
To date, there has been no veritable recovery of the dry white-collar job market, with office job openings hitting a two-year low in December 2023. While affected careers like coding, graphic design, writing and recruiting won’t be totally wiped out, with AI doing much of the heavy lifting, these jobs are expected to change. Many workers in these roles will become more like supervisors of an AI-assisted process that will intervene when necessary.
What executives fail to say explicitly is that with improved efficiency comes redundancy. And if there’s one thing we can trust in a capitalist job market, it’s that companies will trim the fat whenever possible, as we are already observing.
According to McKinsey, 30 percent of hours currently worked across the US economy could be automated by 2030.
How Does Higher Education Fit in?
In times of change, students and underemployed workers look to learning institutions to boost their desirability to employers. But trust in traditional higher education has waned recently for several reasons.
First, there has been an ongoing debate about the value of a college degree that predates conversations about AI related to rising tuition costs in the US. Between 1980 and 2020, the average price of tuition for an undergraduate degree increased by 169 percent, according to a 2021 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Meanwhile, average wages have lagged behind.
In fact, between 1989 and 2016, the average annual growth in wages was only a third of one percent, meaning the cost to attend a university increased nearly eight times faster than wages over that period, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Piling on top of financial concerns is the ambiguity of the future job market. More young people are considering forgoing traditional higher education altogether. As of 2022, only about half of Gen Z teenagers said they intended to go the four-year degree route, down from 71 percent two years prior, according to a study by ECMC Group. The trend is certainly related to skyrocketing tuition costs, but may also be worsened by the perception that a traditional college education is outdated, especially with the full implications of AI still up in the air.
This has spurred on the bootcamp industry. Shorter, less-expensive programs, which teach more specific hard skills, such as SQL for database management, SEO principles for marketing, or Python for web programming, have become popular in recent years.
While some may find success with this strategy, bootcamps are far from a universal panacea. Since AI startups are now automating hard skills like Python coding, for example, there’s the risk that by the time you complete such a specific certification, demand for that skill may have evaporated. Additionally, most employers still prefer to hire college graduates. A 2023 report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) of more than 1,000 executives and hiring managers found that more than 80 percent believe that obtaining a college degree is worthwhile, even factoring in costs, based on the notion that a well-rounded education supports workforce preparedness.
Susan Vroman, EdD, an Internal Organizational Development consultant, executive coach and lecturer at Bentley University in Massachusetts, says the breadth of subjects a student learns about and the ability to think critically that holistic education provides will be just as essential, if not more, in the changing job market.
“We [should] not be preparing ourselves necessarily on a straight line, but rather, we need to be prepared to pivot,” she says. “So I think that anyone who is trying to prepare themselves for one direct line … needs to really recognize that there’s going to be a lot of ideation in our future. We don’t even know what’s coming.”
“We need to be prepared to think and act … so that we’re not misaligned with where the future’s going,” she adds.
As for those who are already seasoned members of the workforce, adding a hard skill to your toolbox won’t hurt, Dr. Vroman says, but time (and money) may be better spent in learning an evergreen skill—especially if you aim to climb corporate ranks.
“When I write about [upskilling], I’m usually talking about behavioral [skills] or competencies. [It’s about] starting to think differently from just completing tasks to a more universal or broad thought so that you can say, ‘This is a transferable managerial skill or a leadership skill’—something that helps you think outside of your box that will be relatable to wherever you go,” she says. With AI taking over automatable tasks, more dynamic and visionary employees will be in higher demand and softer skill sets will be more likely to sustain their value. Leaving repetitive, monotonous work in the past sounds great. But the transition period may be rough for many office workers.
For decades, college graduates bound for the corporate world have followed a boilerplate track. After completing a degree, most begin their career with internships or entry-level positions, which often consist of lower-skill tasks. More than an obligatory rite of passage, this provides an opportunity for workers to learn the fundamentals of a business before rising the ranks.
This is true across most disciplines. An HR manager may start out as a recruiter; an editor likely starts out as a writer; a software architect begins as a junior developer. A graduate could expect to advance in their career incrementally, taking on more responsibility with time and experience. But now, more and more companies are incorporating AI to complete tasks that are easiest to automate—which also happen to coincide with many of the tasks traditionally done by entry-level workers. This points out a serious concern. How will industry newcomers learn the ropes and gain footing in their careers?
More seasoned workers may transition easily during the AI revolution. Having already learned the ropes in their chosen professions, they are primed to step into more managerial roles in which they supervise AI-assisted operations. But what about the next generation of job seekers?
A Shared Responsibility
Students and workers won’t have to navigate the changing economy alone. Universities, employers, and the government will all play a role in easing the transition.
There are multiple actions universities can take to help students prepare better for the future. One way is to add AI-specific study tracks, which more universities are now doing. Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science became the first American university to do so in 2018. Others have followed, including Stanford, MIT, Cornell, and a number of state universities.
Of course, the answer to the skills gap is not to funnel all students into computational studies, so there is also a move to incorporate the use of AI into other majors’ curricula.
The University of Florida, a research university that is home to 16 academic colleges, serves as a good example. It partnered with NVIDIA, a software and graphics card company, which gifted the school $25 million toward an AI supercomputer for use by students across disciplines, “to embed AI into every subject,” a 2022 paper by the Center for Data Innovation reads.
Bentley University, where Vroman is an instructor, is making similar moves. In late 2023, it approved new educational tracks incorporating AI. “We have a bachelor of science in AI for innovation, which is so cool, and the classes that you take are not just computer science classes—we’re talking ethics classes and psychology classes. We’re also going to talk about what impact AI has on the work world,” says Dr. Vroman.
And its other disciplines it will also get an upgrade with AI in mind. This will give students a leg up when applying for future jobs, where AI is already being implemented in tasks. “They’re not just [applicable to] one school inside of our university, but also to different programs,” says Dr. Vroman.
The best way for universities to implement the most useful new courses and majors is to stay in contact with the future employers of their students, Dr. Vroman shares: ”If a university is wanting to contribute to the future thinkers and leaders of the world … there can be a collaboration. If the employers can say, ‘We need more people who are capable of doing this,’ and the university is listening and they’re attuned to that, they will start to grow and innovate—whether it’s degrees or courses that can suit the needs of where the workplace is going—then you’ve got something.”
While companies can’t be expected to employ people for jobs that are no longer needed, they do share responsibility in the shifting job landscape. “We’ve all got to hope that the organizations out there see a future and that they want to make a difference in the future,” says Dr. Vroman.
Jennifer Faust, an international advisor on corporate strategy and sustainability for the International Trade Center, believes they do. In her article on corporate social responsibility, she notes that businesses are realizing that consumers are more aware of where they spend their money. Unethical practices can alienate customers and talented employees, which can be avoided with a bit of social responsibility.
“We always say that a learning organization is a growing organization and an organization that’s not willing to learn is going to die,” says Dr. Vroman. “That is something that you’re going to find time and time again.” One major way corporations can give back is by investing in the growth of employees already on the payroll by paying their way for relevant courses. The practice is a win-win for employees and corporations.
“Whatever their mission, vision, values are, if [companies are] willing to develop their people, then that organization is a learning organization, too,” she says. “…And that might mean [an employee] grows out of here at some point, but while they’re here, how can they prosper and bring ideas in?” Dr. Vroman, who consults with companies about management strategy, says most of her clients are open to this idea.
Corporate social responsibility also means contributing to external educational initiatives. Recently, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft committed to supporting the development of “new standards incorporating AI into foundational computer science education.” IBM has promised to train two million people by 2026 via free, online training and educational partnerships.
These actions not only go a long way for public perception, they also serve to increase brand loyalty, boost morale, and not to mention, set an example for other companies to do what’s right.
A little late to the game, but better late than never, the federal government has also acknowledged concerns about AI’s effect on the job market and made strides toward getting education up to speed.
“In the workplace itself, AI should not be deployed in ways that undermine rights, worsen job quality, encourage undue worker surveillance, lessen market competition, introduce new health and safety risks, or cause harmful labor-force disruptions,” the briefing reads.
In December, the Biden-Harris Administration also hosted an event attended by educators, advocates, and government officials to discuss the importance of better skills development, the need for inclusive teaching, and strategies to support learning institutions in implementing AI studies into education.
At the event, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a new initiative, EducateAI, with the goal of rallying funding to support educators to create AI educational opportunities for K-12, college, and postgraduate students nationwide.
The Silver Lining
With all the concerns laid out in this article, there is still plenty of good will come out of the AI revolution. For instance, in the past few years, machine learning has already benefited the sciences tremendously—accelerating progress on increasing healthcare access, making more effective medicines, and tackling climate change.
Additionally, with the vast reduction of some of the most mundane, repetitive tasks associated with office work, corporate employees can look forward to jobs with a greater emphasis on human-to-human collaboration, emotional intelligence, and high-level thinking.
Dr. Vroman’s advice to the next generation of college students is to be choosy about where they go to school. She recommends investigating what changes universities have made to modernize their curricula and reaching out to professors to ask questions about their courses. “This is a different economy and a different hiring environment. You want to feel good about where you’re investing your time and your money… I would shop the schools to make sure it’s a fit for your interests and also for you as a student before you commit to one,” she says.
There are still many unanswered questions and concerns for young people and working people that can’t be answered for now, as the situation is still playing out. While transition periods can be unpredictable and unnerving, job seekers won’t be alone in navigating this new chapter.
It’s helpful to remember that AI era is just another iteration in a series of industrial revolutions and that innovation has always proven to improve the quality of available jobs over time.