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Retrain, retool for AI world, say experts

by Marlon Madden
5 min read

As Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes more pervasive, labour and education experts see its likely impact on jobs more as an opportunity than a challenge, suggesting workers upgrade their skills and retool.

But the officials also agreed that Barbados was lagging behind in its digital transformation, as they spoke on a panel discussion on the final day of the inaugural Smart Barbados conference at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre,   

General Secretary of the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) Senator Toni Moore said while some union members were receptive to the imminent change, there were others who saw it as a “challenge” and were fearful.

She acknowledged that she does expect some workers to be displaced as a result of digital transformation, but indicated that the labour movement would work to help members transition and to minimize the impact.

Moore said: “I am one that is not caught up in the challenges as much as the opportunities.

AI, the fourth industrial revolution, can potentially change the dynamic of how labour relations and trade unions function.

“I do not necessarily see that as being a negative.

“You can either consider a glass as being half full or half empty.

“So yes, AI has potential to change the world of work phenomenally. Jobs that currently exist are not jobs that will exist.”

The union boss suggested Barbados was “still in the past while the present is already here and we are talking about it as it was something futuristic”.

But she declared the BWU was not sitting by idly and leaving members by the wayside.

She said the labour organization has already started to educate members on the importance of constantly upgrading their skills.

A part of the process required the education system to better prepare the population, according to the BWU general secretary.

She said: “One of the first things that the union has to do and has been doing speaks to a strategic response of ours, which is to modernise our structures not to resist the changes, but to recognise that changes will come, to anticipate them and to be ready and deal with them as they come.

“As part of our implementation in recognizing that strategic objective, a big part of that is education.

“Restructuring, that R-word that trade unionists hate, is something that is inevitable when you are speaking about change going from one mode to a next.

“But education is not only about the workers but the employer as well.

“You don’t just wake up a morning and decide that something is going to change.

“We always encourage employers not to wait until the moment, but bring us on board so that together we can work to make sure that people are retooled, retrained and equipped to meet the new challenges.”

Junior Burgess of the Ministry of Education, Technological and Vocational Training said the curricula in schools at all levels had to change in order for Barbados to adequately meet the needs of the employers.

Burgess, the director of the Information Technology and Quality Assurance Unit, said while there were currently pockets of technological involvement in teaching, this needed to be done in “a more holistic manner”.

He said: “A big focus has to be having a dialogue with the labour movement and the employers, asking of them, ‘what do you require of education?’

“We, for a long while, had what we call a supply-driven system.

“So we have to retool our system so it becomes a demand-driven system.”

Burgess also pointed to the need for greater collaboration between public and private sectors and employers and educational institutions.

He declared: “It has to be about life-long learning.

“You can no longer be comfortable with learning a skill 20 years ago and having the comfort that that skill can take you to the end of your life.”

While staying away from singling out any industry or sectors that were likely to be most impacted by digital change, officials said they expected low-skilled jobs to be more heavily affected.

University of the West Indies student Java Sealy, another member of the panel, told the modest audience that he did not see AI replacing humans in the workplace, but agreed that continuous training and retooling would play a critical role.

The digital ambassador praised Government’s first job initiative, saying it was “sorely needed” to help young people get work experience.

Regional Sales and Development Manager with Group PBS Ashish Uttamchandani expressed disappointment that Barbados and the rest of the region continued to lag when it comes to increased use of technology to do business.

He said: “The challenge I want to put out is why can’t we create more?

“The barriers to creating and being an entrepreneur are at the lowest ever.

“When you think about online stores and influencers, the entry points are next to nothing compared to decades ago with the need for a brick and mortar operation.”

They all agreed that the desired digital transformational change that Barbados was pursuing would take time.

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