Urban Wire How Registered Apprenticeship Can Harness the Power of AI
Bhavani Arabandi
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In the next 18 months, artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to shake up the labor market and transform the future of work, posing challenges and opportunities for businesses, workers, and policymakers. 

AI could augment workers and organizational efficiency and drive innovation in new products and services. However, it could also automate jobs that support labor market stability and exacerbate inequality

The challenge for businesses is to develop effective strategies for reskilling a workforce transformed through the implementation of new AI technologies. The challenge for workers is to gain skills so as not to be replaced by AI or people who use AI. And the challenge for policymakers is to understand and manage AI to foster economic progress and maintain competitive advantage while protecting workers from disruptions.

Registered apprenticeships emerge as a powerful solution to address these challenges while capitalizing on AI’s potential.

How apprenticeships and AI converge 

We know apprenticeships work in tech to fill the skills gap between tech openings and workers who face barriers in traditional hiring processes. And they can respond to the challenges presented by AI.

Registered apprenticeships are paid, structured work and learning opportunities through which workers are mentored and receive a nationally recognized industry credential at little or no cost to the learner. They benefit the economy by closing the skills gap and building talent pipelines for businesses, and they benefit employers through improved productivity, innovation, and retention, as well as a positive return on investment.

Recently, the Urban Institute hosted a roundtable that brought together tech leaders, government representatives, think tanks, and training providers to discuss AI at the intersection of apprenticeship. The majority of the roundtable consisted of women leaders, providing a unique perspective not often gained in the male-dominated tech field.

Here are three ways apprenticeships can complement AI while mitigating its risks, inspired by the expert discussion:

  1. Apprenticeships can help identify which occupations could benefit from AI and how to incorporate it seamlessly.
    Because apprenticeships break down an occupation into trainable components, they can help identify where AI could introduce efficiencies. Their combination of on-the-job training with academic learning enables them to adapt to changing market conditions, not only helping workers gain new skills and competencies but also improving worker mobility. And because job training follows the market, apprenticeship can respond to new jobs and redesign existing occupations.

    Employers and sponsors can review new and existing occupations to examine which skills and competencies workers can augment and which AI can automate. They can partner with community colleges to create training programs that can adapt quickly to AI (unlike colleges and universities, which have been slow to adopt them).

    This knowledge and these programs can help policymakers and businesses use AI for real-time data gathering to inform decisionmaking so they can improve productivity and innovation while creating good jobs.

  2. Apprenticeships can help advance equity in new career pathways with AI skills. 
    AI poses a risk to workers in office and administrative support, retail, transportation, utilities, and health care, where routine tasks face automation. Because of structural barriers, women and people of color are overrepresented in these professions, so AI threatens to widen gender, racial, and ethnic disparities.

    Additionally, the pace of growth and diversification of demographics in the US means people of color will become a majority of the working-age population by 2039, and those without a college degree—who are most affected by job loss because of automation—will be a part of the American working class in 2032. Addressing racial inequities in income has the potential to boost the US economy by $2.3 trillion per year (PDF).

    Apprenticeships offer a potential solution. Over the past several years, registered apprenticeships have expanded into new and nontraditional occupations and sectors (PDF) outside of skilled trades. This has enabled the model to reach populations who are traditionally underrepresented in high-demand and high-wage careers. Because apprenticeships offer an alternative to four-year college degrees and subsequent college debt, and because they’re paid opportunities, workers at risk of being displaced by AI can be retrained and retained via apprenticeships without a significant loss of income during training. They also allow employers to keep workers in a tight economy and reskill workers in new family-sustaining jobs.

  3. Apprenticeships foster human capital development, which AI can build on but can’t replace.
    Businesses are already extensively using AI as a powerful tool for data mining to identify patterns and relationships and filter out irrelevant data. However, basing decisions on data is only as good as the assumptions we had when we selected those data points.

    In a rapidly changing and complex world, business leaders and workers need to think critically to challenge biases and assumptions, examine evidence, and evaluate risk. Fostering a culture of critical thinking—by placing humans at the center—is critical for this. Centering humans begins with continuous investments in human capital, or workers’ accumulated knowledge, work experience, and skills, which is an integral resource of any organization. Businesses making such investments gain by attracting and retaining a productive workforce, and employees gain by acquiring higher skills and wages.

    Apprenticeships foster human capital development through inclusive program design that includes human skills that cannot be replaced by AI, such as critical thinking, emotion, effective communication, contextual understanding and problem-solving, and a life-long learning mindset. They also provide workers with supportive services (PDF) and mentorship, which are built into the training. Research has found that mentoring is key to grow a diverse workforce and supports retention; a win-win for both businesses and workers.

Apprenticeships offer policymakers, sponsors, employers, intermediaries, and educators an opportunity to leverage AI to improve working conditions, worker training, and build equity while alleviating AI’s risks. 

But apprenticeships aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. To best protect workers, advancing these programs should be part of a broader set of policy solutions that address additional changes in the relationship of workers to the labor market. Measures to strengthen strategic flexibility for workers within the workplace can pair with supports to deliver economic stability to workers who have been displaced or otherwise negatively affected by AI.

Equitable human capital investments are the levers for greater equity and economic growth. At Urban, we look forward to building ideas and evidence with other innovators in the field as AI continues to evolve.

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Research Areas Workforce Artificial intelligence
Tags Apprenticeships Economic well-being Job markets and labor force Job opportunities Job training Labor force Postsecondary education and training Building America’s Workforce
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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