This article is part of WorkLife’s special edition, which examines how the jobs and careers of Generation Z professionals will be reshaped and evolve in the AI-informed era. More from the series →
Career anxiety is rife among young professionals today — for good reason.
Those aged between 18 and 25 years old, aka Generation Z, are entering the workforce at a time when workplace models are no longer uniform; learning and development looks different in remote and hybrid environments. Add in the arrival of generative AI to the skills necessary to compete in the modern work age and the picture looks even murkier. The skills they need to get ahead are evolving, fast.
“They’re [Gen Z] starting their careers at a really tough time where there is a lack of overall personal connections and relationships because many of them are either not in the office or they are but in a very semi regular way,” said John Morgan, president of career mobility and leadership development at global talent solutions provider LHH, part of the Adecco Group. “We’re seeing in this population a high degree of anxiety right now over their careers and it’s not just about the fact that the skills are rapidly changing. It’s that this segment of the work population has entered the workforce at a time where they don’t have any real support,” added Morgan.
In LHH’s last Career Readiness Index, which surveyed 2,000 employees of different age groups across the U.S., U.K. and France, 35% of Gen Z respondents polled said they felt they were not in control over their career. And another 35% said they actually couldn’t use the skills that they had in the job that they were in.
Naturally, single reports don’t ever paint the full picture. While some Gen Z workers might feel uneasy about their career or how generative AI will affect jobs, there is also a clear hunger from this age group to experiment with how it can make their jobs easier, perform tasks faster, fill in any knowledge gaps they may lack from in-person interaction, and ultimately thrive in the workplace.
But there is a skills gap. A total 70% of 30,000 workers polled across 23 countries are already using generative AI at work, but less than half are receiving training or guidance on how to use it, increasing the risk of misuse, according to a new report from Adecco.
And despite being digital natives, Gen Z workers aren’t born with innate knowledge on how to use AI in a way that can be applied effectively at work. They may figure out how to use it faster than older generations, given their digital adeptness. But to truly unlock its potential and become experts in how to maximize the capabilities of AI while circumventing its shortfalls, takes time, guidance and practice.
To unpick which top skills will be must-haves for young professionals starting, or in the early stages of their careers, we spoke to a range of talent, education and tech experts.
Generative AI is still in its infancy, which means there is still some level of expertise required to use it effectively, in a way that doesn’t inadvertently cause errors, waste time, or fail to exploit its potential. How long it remains that way is anyone’s guess as the tech continues to quickly evolve. But in the meantime, it requires, let’s say, a human copilot to perform well.
Students at the Simon Business School, University of Rochester in New York, are being guided on how to become skillful copilots. The goal is to arm them with the right skills to not only understand generative AI as it stands now, but adapt to it when it inevitably changes, according to Mitch Lovett, senior associate dean of Education and Innovation at Simon Business School, University of Rochester. “One of the skills is understanding how you evaluate whether the AI can perform a task,” said Lovett. “And right now that requires a fair amount of expertise on the part of the person who’s using it.”
That’s largely because the tech is still flawed. The data modeling used by these large language models is still a black box. So students across classes at Rochester are guided to comprehend generative AI’s fundamentals and use it at the start of their critical thinking process.
For example, they’re encouraged to assess what its limits may be for a particular task, to know how best to prompt it to get the most effective outputs (a matter of trial and error), check facts and sources of answers given, and finally, use sound judgment to decide whether the outcomes add value to a particular task.
So far so logical. But it’s not as straightforward as it seems. Even traditional ways to check sources differ with generative AI. And because tools like ChatGPT will actually make up facts — a behavior called “hallucinations” — how to verify information given is critical. “This is where the judgment side is fascinating because how we normally evaluate sources — like asking, ‘do other things they [the source] say make sense; is it unbiased?’ — there are various things we would use to evaluate a source but most of that doesn’t work with AI,” said Lovett. “Because it will say lots of things that make sense then it will just flip one word, which changes the entire meaning of something, or will just miscalculate something that changes the entire meaning. So even though the setup of the problem might be correct, and everything else might be matching. And so the way you make judgments has to be within the context of AI,” he added.
The rise of generative AI is expected to increase the demand for new skills and reduce demand for others. That fact, compounded with the reality of an aging and shrinking workforce will cause the talent gap to reach 85 million jobs by 2030, according to recent projections from accounting giant EY, which itself just invested $1.4 billion in ey.ai — a platform to help clients adopt and integrate AI within their operations at scale.
But there is a current AI skills deficit within organizations, so having young professionals already primed with fundamental understanding and knowledge about how generative AI works, can set employers up to use it effectively — and evolve with the tools themselves, stressed Liz Fealy, EY global people advisory services deputy leader and workforce advisory leader.
“We’re seeing an uptick in critical thinking skills, and then ethical skills because…the more you can hone in to get the best answers, the better, but you do need people that understand what’s the right answer and question if the algorithm is wrong,” said Fealy.
AI is still rife with bias due to the training data on which the tech bases its output. “As people are working on their skills, I think one of the questions is ‘how do we make sure people still get the base set of skills, such that you can interrogate the outcomes that you’re getting from AI,’” added Fealy. “And you have those critical thinking skills to make sure you know that it’s generating the right answer. So where people will need to get trained is if AI does a lot of the bottom-of-the-pyramid work. They won’t need to do that, but will need to understand it.”
If there’s one thing this digitally-savvy generation is accustomed to, it’s change. And it’s just as well, because generative AI is driving rapid change in workforces across industries. This need for this kind of “change resilience” soft skill has been picked up on in various research surveys LHH has run among employers looking to hire, according to Morgan.
This so-called change resilience will also prove useful for any business looking to more deeply integrate AI (most of them). Because, while 84% of employers say they plan to use AI, only 38% are actually using it, and only 18% are being trained on it, according to EY’s 2023 Work Re-imagined study.
“I think we’re going to find that the employers that can actually bring the human into the process of optimizing the work with technology, bringing people along, getting their point of view on how to use AI right, to get the work done more productively, but then committing on the back end to train and upskill the people to keep them in the organization — that’s going to be where it’s going to go,” said Fealy. “And I think we’re going to see people start to pick careers based on where they can go to get skills and where they can work flexibly,” she added.
Meanwhile, collaboration with coworkers will also be a huge part of the puzzle. “This group has to go out of their way to make human, personal connections right now,” said Morgan. So finding a peer group and honing your communication and networking skills is and always has been critical in career development. But it’s really, really important for Gen Z right now, until we get really clear on what their return to work actually looks like,” he added.
While soft skills will be essential in any young professional’s development, AI is set to make a head for data, a broad understanding of machine learning and data visualization skills highly sought after.
Currently, employers are on the hunt for people who have strong Python skills — the best coding language for AI and machine learning — according to LHH’s John Morgan. And the demand is outstripping supply. He recommends that any Gen Z worker looking for a tech-related job, finesse their Python skills.
Another hard skill that will help Gen Z future proof their careers is data visualization, stressed Morgan. Data visualization is the practice of taking large volumes of data and analysis and distilling it into a compelling visual representation, with a strong narrative and message, that can then be communicated to people in a digestible way.
This has been on the rise for a while, but the sheer amount of data that businesses are acquiring or gaining access to is really pushing the need for that skill hard and fast, stressed Morgan. There are numerous software programs that can assist with doing this, such as Microsoft’s Power BI. And while the need for this existed for the past several years, it’s not traditionally a skill everyone has had, whether they’re a programmer or in a less tech-centric role.
“Every client that we talk to is investing in this skill, this training,” said Morgan. “It’s basically the way to present data in a compelling, visual, logical way so that everyone can understand it, and so the data can be converted into business intelligence. And it’s a skill everyone should have. If you’re a Gen Z marketer or Gen Z finance person you need to be acquiring data visualization skills, because it’s like yesterday’s PowerPoint,” he added.