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What happens when AI replaces the traditional “first jobs”?

New grads should understand how to work with AI because it’s here to stay.

Ruth Zive

October 06, 20235 minutes

graduation cap on orange background, symbolizing looking for a job
This article was originally published in Fast Company on September 8, 2023

As the class of 2023 turns from summer parties and vacations to job interviews and resume-writing, they’re entering a labor market that looks wildly different from the labor market of yesteryear. And not just five or 10 years ago, I literally mean last year. The main difference? The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) as a competitor for entry-level work.

Entry-level positions like receptionist, administrative assistant, contact center worker, and cashier often represent the first point of contact between a customer and a business. These customer-facing roles are exactly the ones that emerging technologies (from ChatGPT to touch-screen ordering systems) are well-equipped to handle. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 there were 2,898,900 jobs classified as customer service representatives in the United States. The agency expects a 4% decline in these jobs by 2131. And let’s not forget, this calculation was performed before the launch of ChatGPT that changed everything we thought we knew about AI’s impact on business.

So what happens now, with so many of these entry-level jobs set to become fully or partially automated?

AI is already being put to work

This isn’t just an academic exercise. In the last few months, we’ve seen intelligent uses of automation upend traditional conceptions of customer service. For example, Wendys’ recently introduced generative AI-enabled customer service in their drive-through. Matt Spessard, the company’s global chief technology officer, said:

“Wendy’s FreshAI automated drive-thru ordering system is intended to feel as natural as interacting with a crew member, providing quick answers to customer questions and taking accurate food orders, even if items are not phrased exactly as they appear on the menu.”

~ Matt Spessard, Wendys’ Global Chief Technology Officer

This is just one example of the massive changes underway as business leaders embrace AI to provide more automated self-service opportunities to customers. In fact, at LivePerson, where I work, our customer support team leapfrogged an entire year of work by adding generative AI to our customer support bot. The results speak for themselves: 30% more inquiries are resolved during the first point of contact — and Net Promoter Scores have skyrocketed.

Put more simply, the big change here is that as a customer — whether you’re pulling up to a drive through or working with enterprise-grade software — your first interaction with a brand is now likely to be led by an AI, not a human.

The impending impact on our workforce and what to do next

Unfortunately for any business or employee that doesn’t care to adapt, this transformation will not be limited to roles that involve selling a burger and fries. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, “by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines.”  

Both business leaders and rank-and-file employees should be thinking hard about their futures. As a mother of five, I know the end of summer can be a particularly fraught moment for young adults figuring out their next steps. So if I were to give one piece of advice to the class of 2023 as it enters the workforce, it would be to continue their education by learning how their skills can be adapted for the new AI-enabled workplace. Here are a couple of ways that proactive job-seekers can prepare for this paradigm shift:

  • Familiarize yourself with AI concepts: Begin with the basics. While you don’t necessarily need to know the nitty-gritty about machine learning, deep learning, and natural language processing, you can begin to read articles and watch videos about what AI is good at—and what it’s not. This will help you understand at a high-level what role you can play, and where you may need to learn more. I’ve found the Stanford AI Index to be a great primer for anyone interested in what’s next for AI.
  • Learn how to use conversational searches and prompts: If you haven’t already, try using ChatGPT and other generative AI products. Ask different questions (or enter prompts) related to the industry or role you’re applying for. Ask the AI system to refine its answer using data from a certain time period or geographic region, or to respond in different voices and tones. Learn how you can become smarter on topics faster and envision how tools like these can help in your new job. Now, there are even Coursera classes about prompt engineering that you can take for free.

Of course, the onus can’t just be on people entering (or re-entering) the workforce. Business leaders need to figure out how to support employees as they start to work side-by-side with AI. New AI training programs for workers and new roles managing AI experiences can lead to a world of new opportunities for a new generation of workers, so it’s important to institute programs at your company that train employees on basic AI concepts and how to hold productive conversations with bots. Sharing resources with employees, or even better, investing in learning materials or events that help them develop their AI skills, will help them feel supported as they begin to work more with automation.

The reality is that AI will transform business as much as the introduction of the PC did, and just like business leaders helped their employees upskill with basic word processing and spreadsheet training, they’ll need to put in the time and funding to uplevel employees’ understanding of AI. 
Here’s the good news from that Future of Jobs Report: “97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.” While the class of 2023’s first jobs may look different than they traditionally did, we have the opportunity now to make sure that difference is a positive one.