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At Davos, a warning that AI is coming for white-collar jobs

White-collar workers need critical thinking skills and a willingness to learn to remain competitive in a workplace with AI, business leaders at the World Economic Forum say.

At the World Economic Forum this week, business leaders are discussing the pressing topic of how generative AI will affect white-collar jobs as well as the growing importance of critical thinking and adaptability in the workplace.

Regarding productivity, Arvind Krishna, chair and CEO of IBM, predicted, for instance, that generative AI will have a 40% improvement in coding productivity by 2030 and provide significant gains in customer service. 

Speaking on a panel at the Davos, Switzerland forum, Krishna said that any job that falls under the umbrella of "digital labor," such as tasks in HR and finance that can be digitized, will be affected by generative AI. Indeed, IBM said last year that it was considering a hiring pause on back-office jobs that AI could do. 

AI won't necessarily displace jobs, but if workers don't adapt, "you're going to find that you may not have a job," Krishna said. 

He added that generative AI "is the first technology that goes after white-collar work."

"It doesn't matter whether you're a physicist, mathematician, a computer scientist, doctor or writer; it means that the lower half of cognitive work gets taken over by generative AI," Krishna said. "It implies that you've got to learn critical thinking."

Accenture's top interview question

Another skill employees will need is adaptability, according to Julie Sweet, chair and CEO of Accenture. She said employers will need people who want to learn, and employees will need to be open to upskilling. Accenture employs about 740,000 people and hires about 100,000 a year, she said. 

What have you learned in the past six months?
Julie SweetChair and CEO, Accenture

In every job interview, no matter the occupation, Sweet said Accenture staff members ask: "What have you learned in the past six months?" The purpose for the question is less about a candidate's interests and more about a candidate's inquisitiveness.

"We don't care if it's how to bake a cake, but we have to have people who like to learn, " she said.

According to a survey by the Oliver Wyman Forum, a think tank of 25,000 people in 16 countries, including the U.S., generative AI might affect employee retention. Released this week at the Davos conference, the survey found that nearly one in three workers looking for new jobs cited AI disruption as the reason. The finding is not unique; Gartner reported recently that employees who believe AI will disrupt their jobs are more likely to leave, compared with those who don't.

A report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released for this week's forum stated that almost 40% of global employment may be "exposed" to AI disruption, but in advanced economies, about 60% of jobs "are exposed to AI, due to the prevalence of cognitive-oriented jobs." By exposure, the IMF study refers to how closely any task that makes up a job can be matched or replaced by AI technologies.

But new technology doesn't always produce immediate productivity gains, a problem identified by economist Robert Solow in the 1980s in what is now known as Solow's paradox, or the Productivity Paradox, the report noted. 

"This paradox left many wondering if the problem lay not with the capacity of the technology but rather with the manner of implementation," the report stated. If generative AI deployments aren't managed well, "it risks becoming a productivity sinkhole in the short term." 

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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