Arts graduates and the future of work: AI takeover


The skills possessed by arts graduates will not be made redundant with the rise of AI technologies

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By Josh Cole

When The Times’ Good University Guide was published on 15 September, the former education secretary, Lord Baker of Dorking, criticised the fact that universities have failed to keep up with the changing world of work. Singling out arts and humanities graduates, Lord Baker rightly highlighted the ever increasing importance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in making redundant the typical management career paths that arts graduates have traditionally entered into. Whilst Lord Baker is certainly right to highlight that the future of work will be shaped by AI and those who might manipulate it, employers continue to place a significant emphasis on the human qualities that computers cannot yet imitate, such as critical thinking, creativity and cultural awareness.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a major US-based professional services firm, the future of work and how core human abilities will become increasingly valuable to employers. This is because AI continues to take over the bulk of routine tasks that characterise a significant portion of the work carried out in sectors such as accounting, finance and law. The elimination of routine administrative tasks will free up workers to focus on value-added projects, such as strategic planning, and will help to improve productivity. The wide range of areas that automation will affect in the future shows how even traditionally deemed high-status jobs in the city are just as vulnerable to automation as blue-collar workers like warehouse pickers and packers. Fundamentally, it is predicted that AI will act as a disruptive force within employment, with those who are able to translate their skills across sectors and job functions being the most likely to successfully exploit the opportunities presented by automation.

The UK consultancy firm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), also recognised this trend and has suggested that it will lead to employers placing an increased importance on adaptability. This is because workers will be required to have the technological skills to manipulate the large volume of information generated by AI, the social skills to explain what it means, and or the creativity to use it in such a way that generates revenue. This suggests that people who are able to amplify skills such as problem solving and empathy, combined with a critical technological understanding, will be highly sought after by employers in the future. These are skills that arts graduates generally possess in abundance, supporting the notion that an arts education will continue to be relevant long into the future. In their report, PwC called on firms to abandon simplistic hiring targets that focus squarely on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) graduates, and instead encouraged them to look at the current skills in a particular workforce and how gaps may emerge in ten years’ time as technological innovation grows apace.

In light of the complex employment trends presented by PwC and BCG, Lord Baker’s comments should be understood in a more nuanced manner. Students that leave university with a limited skill set, believing that they have completed their education, will find themselves edged out by those who embrace the adaptability that PwC have highlighted and who have a desire to engage in a process of lifelong learning. The pace of technological change means that professionals may find themselves up-ended by automation. Both reports argue that it is essential to move away from the idea of linear career paths and instead recognise the value of portfolio careers, where people might return to education at multiple points in their working lifetime.

The findings put forward by BCG and PwC suggest that the future of work will emphasise advanced digital skills with strong reliance on human social skills. However, the current government higher education policy is at odds with the anticipated needs of the future workforce. In June, it was proposed that there would be funding cuts to a series of arts courses offered across UK universities that were deemed to be high-cost and low-return. These proposals aimed to free up cash for STEM subjects. An academic from the University of Birmingham, Dr Zoe Hope Bualatis, commented that such a narrow understanding of degree value was based on the ‘language of minimum expectation’, which focuses on questions of expected graduate earnings and specific labour needs. Dr Bualatis commented, saying that the “proposed funding cuts show a disconnect between the changing nature of work and how creative subjects are essential to meeting those demands”, reinforcing the analyses of BCG and PwC that suggest that the skills gained from an arts education will continue to be relevant.

As AI becomes increasingly prevalent from both economic and social perspectives, arts graduates have the opportunity to be at the forefront of this change. This is because the essential skills that such graduates possess which will call attention to them in the future world of work.