Rise of AI will create a new skills ‘glass ceiling’

Non-graduates, silver surfers, and those in lower socio-economic brackets will be left behind as the rise of AI creates a ‘skills glass ceiling’.

That’s according to the latest Robert Half Jobs Confidence Index (JCI) – an economic confidence tracker produced in partnership with the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr).

The latest iteration of the Robert Half JCI revealed that almost half (45%) of the UK workforce is concerned that AI will disrupt their career in the next six to ten years. The data suggests that graduates and those completing further education are being set up for better success in the AI revolution, with 31% expecting access to training through work and 33% reskilling independently in the next two years. In comparison, just 19% of non-graduates plan to independently upskill and only 18% expect access to this through their employer between now and 2026.

Looking further down the line, 50% of graduates are planning to access training through industry and professional member bodies in the next five years, with just 37% of non-graduates planning to upskill via these channels. These combined statistics suggest that those without a degree or further education will be left behind in the AI revolution, which will only exacerbate both skills shortages and the widely reported social disparities and economic inactivity rates that the UK is experiencing.

According to the statistics, it’s not just a lack of access to training that is set to disadvantage non-graduates. There also appears to be a gap in recognition of the impact of AI and skills between those with a degree and those without. More than half (52%) of graduates indicated they are concerned about the impact of AI on their job over the next six to ten years, compared to just a third (33%) of non-graduates.

Elsewhere, the data also suggests that older workers are at risk of being pushed out of the workforce due to AI. Just 19% of over 55’s are seeking AI training themselves over the next few years while only 18% are looking for this through their employers. With a significant proportion of this generation leaving the workforce during Covid – and the Government seeking to entice them back – these statistics paint a concerning picture given the Bank of England governor is signalling the UK economy is near or at full employment.

The data also shows that those in lower socio-economic groups are at risk of missing out on vital upskilling. While 29% of those in the upper-mid social tier are proactively seeking and funding AI-related training themselves over the next two years, this falls to 25% of those in the lower social grade. This is likely to result from limited access to the financial resources one needs to undertake training.

It should be noted that while the social demographic likely to hold professional or managerial positions in their careers, and have completed higher education, are more likely to be able to fund their own skills development, they are also planning to utilise employer-led schemes, with 47% expecting access to this training. In contracts, only 40% of those in the lower social grade are seeking this through their employer.

As Chris Lawton, Vice President Permanent Placements UK & Ireland at Robert Half, explained, this not only puts greater pressures on employers, but could also exacerbate social disparities in the workforce: “AI is going to create a seismic shift in the workforce. And empowering workers through upskilling and reskilling will enable them to better leverage AI tools, helping to drive business value, improve efficiency and shape the future of success. However, our data suggests that there is currently the potential for a disparity in access to training that could disadvantage those without further education, older workers or those in less advantaged social groupings. The announcement in the Spring Budget that the Government is creating a £7.4 million upskilling fund pilot to increase AI skills access for SMEs is just the first step of what is required. Nonetheless, if such training isn’t being well targeted across the workforce, then true societal impact is at risk of being limited.

“Unless addressed in a structured way, the systemic tech skills shortages the UK is facing are at risk of being exacerbated as per the findings in our JCI. Businesses, education institutions, industry bodies and policy makers need to work together to ensure no-one is left behind due to a lack of access to training.”