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Frontline worker jobs at risk from AI surge

Experts warn that AI's ascent could disproportionately affect frontline jobs, worsening mental health and deepening the skills divide. Some workers fear obsolescence due to AI.

The rise of AI threatens frontline jobs and strains worker morale, experts warn. Just the fear of adoption is taking a mental health toll on these workers, foreshadowing a broader crisis.

Panelists assembled this week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said they believe healthcare, construction, food services and other frontline workers might have more to be concerned about with AI than office workers.

"Industries that rely heavily on manual labor or routine tasks are particularly vulnerable to AI automation, which exacerbates the divide between high-skilled and low-skilled workers contributing to income inequality," said Beth Schwartz, associate director of the Office of Applied Psychology at the American Psychological Association (APA) and a panelist. "Displaced workers often struggle to find suitable alternative employment."

Industries that rely heavily on manual labor or routine tasks are particularly vulnerable to AI automation.
Beth SchwartzAssociate director of the Office of Applied Psychology, American Psychological Association

Schwartz presented data from the APA's 2023 Work in America survey of more than 2,500 workers, including that more than one-third of frontline workers worry about AI making their jobs obsolete. Those with greater concern about AI also reported higher levels of negative mental health issues and burnout. The annual Work in America survey measures employee stress and what workers want from employers with respect to mental health.

The panel, "AI for the Rest of Us: How Equitable Is the Future of Work for Front-line Workers?" was sponsored by the National Academies' Board on Human-Systems Integration.

Employers have said that AI will benefit frontline workers. Last year for example, Walmart addressed employee concerns about AI in the workplace, telling them that AI has clear limits and all it will do is free them from "monotonous, repetitive tasks," making them available for other types of work.

But AI adoption in the workplace could lead to "deskilling," a reduction in workers' skills and expertise over time, particularly for frontline workers, as reliance on AI technologies grows, said Mindy Shoss, a panelist and psychology professor at the University of Central Florida.

An American Psychological Association survey shows AI is taking a toll on employee mental health
Workers are worried about the impact of AI on their mental health, according to an American Psychological Association survey.

AI can reduce opportunities

As AI systems take over entry-level and routine tasks, frontline workers might have fewer opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge needed to advance in their careers. "These jobs play an important training ground for workers," Shoss said.

Schwartz said just the fear of how AI might affect jobs is having an impact on employees.

Workers who have greater worry about AI also had differences in their attitudes about work. "They didn't feel as valued at work," Schwartz said, referring to survey findings. They are concerned that new forms of tech "will take over some or all of their duties in the next 10 years," she said.

To underscore the effects of productivity gains on employment, John Lee, a panelist, cited a 2023 World Economic Forum report forecasting that AI will create 69 million jobs globally but eliminate 83 million in the next five years. Lee is an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Lee said there is a danger in losing sight of the consequences of AI. Even if AI engages the workers and improves productivity, those gains are "going to lead to a lot of job dislocations," Lee said. A team with 100 members that sees a 20% productivity gain might lose 20 frontline workers.

To adjust, Lee said the educational system will need to be restructured so people can earn things like "micro-degrees" that take months to earn, instead of years.

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

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