Article: India's evolving economic landscape demands AI-skilled workforce: Dr Shashi Tharoor


India's evolving economic landscape demands AI-skilled workforce: Dr Shashi Tharoor

At TechHR India 2023, Dr Shashi Tharoor highlights India’s need for adaptability, skill development, and future-ready strategies in the face of AI advancements and evolving job landscapes.
India's evolving economic landscape demands AI-skilled workforce: Dr Shashi Tharoor

‘The notion of the possible is precisely that we should not be limited by what we think is possible today what you might think of as a sunrise industry turns into a sunset experience, but be prepared to embrace that and react in a positive way there will be some folks you will need to retrain, and there will be some folks you can't retrain. like triage; do it humanely’, said Dr Shashi Tharoor, Author and Public Intellectual in a session on ‘Leading The Way Towards A Sustainable & Equitable Future at the TechHR India 2023’. 

In a conversation with Ester Martinez, CEO and Editor-in-Chief at People Matters on how can we make the transition more humane with rapid advancements in technology and AI, Dr Tharoor said, “The ability to think beyond conventional boundaries, to transcend the limitations of today's possibilities and envision what could be achievable tomorrow, stands as one of the most valuable pursuits in the 21st century, spanning across various disciplines. This importance becomes even more pronounced due to the rapid, whirlwind pace of technological transformation with which all of you are well-acquainted. Consider this: I recently came across a noteworthy study conducted by the Oxford Martin School, which projects that by 2030, a staggering 30% of jobs worldwide will be roles that do not currently exist. The daunting question arises: How do we prepare individuals for roles that are yet undefined? This dilemma stems from the unpredictable nature of future job requirements. Hence, possessing the capacity and willingness to embrace novel approaches, new undertakings, and unexplored territories—one's previous experience might never have contemplated—is becoming an indispensable trait for prospective hires, trainees, and learners. This need to adapt, however, often eludes many of us who have not accustomed ourselves to such thinking.”

Embracing change while navigating the unpredictable future of innovation 

Furthermore, Dr Tharoor explained how the world is ever-evolving and new job roles are being defined out of necessity, and with AI the future is unpredictable by saying, “Another significant consideration is the dynamic nature of innovation. The phenomena that seem to be on the ascendant might, in an unforeseen twist, descend into obscurity. An illustrative instance is the emergence and eventual decline of medical transcription during the early years of the century. This practice involved American doctors recording notes, which were then transmitted overnight to qualified Indian professionals to transcribe while the doctors slept, yielding substantial cost savings and efficiency. This once-promising field experienced a sudden demise due to the proliferation of AI-driven voice recognition software. Now, these doctors, instead of depending on external transcription services, can employ software that converts their speech into text as they speak. This transformative change effectively rendered the medical transcription sector obsolete, leading to its collapse. Similarly, even essential domains like radiology faced paradigm shifts. Qualified Indian radiologists remotely interpreting MRIs for American hospitals had been a lucrative business. However, AI advancements have enabled direct computer-based analysis, circumventing the need for radiologists to review each scan. Such instances underline the volatile nature of our times, where even established practices cannot be taken for granted. Something that seems possible today may not be possible tomorrow, and something that may be possible tomorrow hasn't yet been thought of today but could be that keeps you on your toes. This awareness keeps us vigilant, albeit sometimes taxing and nerve-wracking. Nevertheless, it also exudes a sense of exhilaration—every operation within your enterprise presents an opportunity to explore how it could be streamlined, optimized, or made more lucrative through imaginative, even fantastical means.” 

Strategize to make AI an advantage 

Illustrating his own profession as an example, Dr Tharoor shared how with AI adoption even the traditional mechanisms will change. He said, “A lot of things will become possible in the future that isn't possible today, be prepared to embrace that and to react in an accommodative way for you folks remember part of the answer is retraining but it's not the whole answer.”

  • Individuals and organisations should focus on upskilling and reskilling.
  • Embrace a growth mindset and be willing to learn new skills and technologies. 
  • Continuous learning and development are crucial to staying relevant in a dynamic job market.
  • HR should ensure that people who can't keep up with this change are given a soft landing, and employ by retraining them, but those who cannot adapt or retrain, deploy them with different roles. 

The World of Work Today - People, Profit and Planet 

Dr Tharoor shares, “One of my favourite concepts in the world of work today is the James Elkington theory called the triple bottom line. Profit is essentially you wouldn't stay in business but once you've taken care of that the other two bottom lines also matter. Planning, the obvious environmental responsibilities we all have that what you do in your business doesn't actually harm others and harm the environment, you don't throw toxic sludge into our rivers, you don't screw dangerous chemicals into the air, all of that stuff that you know you can now assume that everybody is sufficiently conscious of and you can do that. But then what about people? Now those include two kinds of people, the people who work for you and the people who live around you but don't work for you and companies need to get used to the idea in the 21st century that those people, both sets of people really matter because ultimately all development, all corporate activity, all political activity is at the bottom above people and if what you do is making you money but arming people in the process you should stop doing it and if you won't there will be many of us outside who want you to stop doing it. If you can do it in a way that helps people we will encourage and support you and you can legitimately lobby for tax incentives and other things because what you're doing is also giving you a social good.” 

Q&A session with Dr Shashi Tharoor at TechHR India 2023

Dr Tharoor made a lasting impression when addressing the audience during the Q&A session:

Question: How can we address dual challenges -  brain drain and continuation? Context: A significant number of India’s skilled professionals are moving to other countries, whereas other countries excel in managing ageing populations and new technologies. And, salaried employees in India grapple with heavy taxes. 

Dr Tharoor: “We exaggerated the fear of the brain drain in the 60s and 70s as we discovered because all these folks did extremely well (techies, engineers, IIT products and IIM products). Many of them have contributed to the alma maters, of course, maybe sent money home to their families and many have invested and started companies in India and come back. So the brain drain became a brain game. If they want to go, let them go but at the same time, let's encourage them to give back. Secondly, when I speak from personal experience, there were people coming back because when India began offering them possibilities that they had thought only existed in the developed world of the West, when those things were available here, suddenly all the other attractions of life in India began to appeal to them (Proximity to family, grandparents with their children for example, schooling in familiar cultural values, cuisine, trips to the local farm shop in the corner). So all of these attractions did bring people back and there were at least three years I know when the returnees outnumbered the department. So you still had a large percentage of say the IIT graduating class going, but you had a much larger percentage of them coming back for jobs in India than ever used to be the case. Don't force anyone to come back when they don't want to.”

Question: How fast is India’s education system catching up with AI? Are we bridging the gap in the workplace and what educational institutions produce? 

Dr Tharoor: “Often, there's a lag between what's needed in the right place and what we actually produce out of our institutions. For example, companies like Ulysses and TCS and so on have long given up getting employment-ready people when they hire them. They're basically hiring people and giving them a year's remedial education. And it's not on-the-job training. It's actually education. We go to the Infosys campus in Mysore. It looks like a U.S. university. And they basically put kids, just hire them with graduate degrees of them, and they put them through another year of education so they're ready for what Infosys demands of them at work. So there is already an awareness of the need to do this. Now, on AI specifically, we were behind the curve. I think there are a number of institutions that have begun introducing courses in AI. So eventually, we do catch up. But there's no question that we need to get more and more people AI-ready. I mean, a lot of the skills that we were imparting to them in the days of business process offshoring and so on.. are simply not going to be enough in the world of the 21st century. You're just going to have other skills, and learning about AI and trying to keep up with it is extremely important. A striking data point is that when I was visiting Silicon Valley a couple of years ago, I was told about 40% of the people working on AI were actually Indian. So we obviously seem to have our brains wired for this kind of stuff. Let's try and train them eventually. And one question I could ask is what's preventing a corporate from developing an in-house training capacity on AI? Think about it, because, you know, we don't have to rely on the IITs for everything. It’s a joint responsibility.” 

Question:  What’s your take on the element of fear involved with AI adoption, regarding loss of jobs, and being obsolete in the market?

Dr Tharoor: “Fear is a natural human emotion, and I'm not one of those who believes that fear is a good motivator for people. I think actual fear is negative. It affects the quality of work and the quality of people's judgments. I think part of your job in HR ought to be to calm down fears. And one of the things I think you do is have a corporate safety net for people who are afraid of their own obsolescence. Now, I realise that the corporates themselves might fear obsolescence, and that's yet a challenge. You do need to have adaptability at the corporate level. But also, you do need to be well-obedient enough to tell people, don't worry, no one is going to lose a job because of obsolescence without having a fair crack at retraining or other possibilities or being given a generous solution to find another job. Whatever it may be that you can offer from your corporate side. But I would say that dispelling such fears through some sort of a social security net within the company is the only way forward. You're not going to get good results from employees working out of fear or living in fear by comparison with those who are going to be productive because they feel that even if they fall, you'll catch up.

Question: Could you provide insights into India's emergence as a manufacturing hub in the context of the China+1 strategy, with emphasis on substantial workforce demands, training requirements, and the need to elevate skills to meet these developments?

Dr Tharoor: “The diagnosis is that a lot of companies are leaving China because frankly their labour has now become too expensive and the cost efficiency is no longer there, in addition to which there's a growing dislike in the developed world, about Chinese policies and their increasing belligerence and aggressiveness around. And therefore many countries and corporations from the West in particular wish to leave China. The problem is they're not coming to us, and there are good reasons for that. And that's why the prescription I see doesn't match that diagnosis, and a lot of companies going to Vietnam, and fewer are going to places like the Philippines, Malaysia and so on. At one point there was talk of India perhaps being able to offer the right sort of incentives. But even if our labour is actually now slightly cheaper than China's, we have too many other dysfunctionalities including scarcity and cost of land, the unreliability of infrastructure like electricity and water, and bottlenecks in the ports, so that's been tackled on a war footing by the government. And overall infrastructures, We are just a more densely populated country, and land is more scarce. We do have fundamental issues, but I don't want to rain on everyone's parade. I'm also very happy boosting India when I go abroad. So until we can get basic act together, and get those basics right, to talk about actually offering an alternative to China, a predator one that will attract foreign companies in Europe, is not there. And from the American point of view, many of them are moving companies to Mexico. And they're finding that the cost advantages and so on are almost as attractive in Mexico plus the advantages in India. So let's not have any illusions. China plus one is, that plus one is going to be us.”

Question: With AI advancement, how can we address the potential job displacement in administrative roles, like drivers, which form a significant part of India's population? How can we extend training beyond corporates to tackle this challenge in a service-oriented country like India?

Dr Tharoor: “There's a study right now in the US that 30% of the jobs today will be automated by 2030. Now that's a frightening statistic, right? And that kind of thing is quite alarming. It's often difficult, sometimes it seems obvious that some things can be done more quickly by machines. Sometimes it's even difficult to predict which ones will go. I remember joking that some Indian professionals were saying that no machine is going to be able to give an Ayurvedic massage as well, as a human in my state of Kerala. And now I'm discovering that apparently, they are developing robots that can actually give extremely good massages, and probably far more reliably with sensors and everything else in, that would be a better job. Now, I think, however, that still won't succeed. Because there are some things that require a human touch. We will need to relate to other human beings. I, for example, was always sceptical about the massive enthusiasm for online courses, which had just begun when I was a minister in what is now the education ministry. And there was a lot of talk about MOOCs, you know, massive online courses. And there was talk about video conferences as a substitute for teachers and all these things. And then when it actually got implemented massively during COVID, everyone realized what a disaster it is. Parents were complaining that their children couldn't possibly concentrate on the screen all the time. There were people saying that they couldn't understand necessarily the accents or the content of what was coming to them from a foreign country. There were all sorts of problems, and I have always argued. And I'm very proud that I was an educator, that there would be no substitute for real teachers in real classrooms and for the real campus experience of interacting with other children and so on. You will never get to a situation where online education will replace education. It will be a complement to it. Maybe you can use it to replace the extra tuition you used to pay for via software instead and get extra work for those who needed remedial extra tuition at home. But otherwise, you will need the teacher to explain what that foreign online course is teaching. Or you will need your fellow classmates to bounce ideas off, make mistakes with, and figure out things for yourself. All those experiences cannot be replaced. So human life requires a human touch in very many areas. And in each of your firms, you can think about what is job which, even if it could be automated, would be better done by a human being. I would say firing is one of them. You can generate letters of firing very quickly. But if you don't have the decency to talk to people. Remember the scandal just last year when some Indian-American entrepreneur fired 10,000 people on Instagram? And people said, what a lousy thing for a human being to do to other human beings. So remember that these are the kinds of things where keep on asking yourself, the more senior you are, the better if you ask yourself this question - What is it that perhaps could be automated, but actually, ideally, requires a human touch?” 

Question: In consideration of India's demographic advantage and its projected rise as a major economy, what key actions should businesses take in the next 10 years to drive innovation, ensure youth are job-ready, and effectively convert our demographic potential into a positive economic outcome? 

Dr Tharoor: “With AI automation, machine learning, you are likely to see more and more people losing jobs than it was 10 years ago. And the question now is, in these circumstances, who is training them? How do you expect them to be able to cope with challenges today, let alone those of tomorrow? I really challenge the bigger corporates. Why can't they set up training institutions to train people in the kinds of fields that they are working on today, with today's technology? The deal could be that they would get some tax breaks for doing so. And they would have the right to recruit the people of the crop they like. But at least the remainder of what they don't recruit can go out into the world armed with a respectable diploma from a major corporate, which would make them attractive to hire by somebody else. It's absurd, for example, I'm not going into the world of tech, a simple thing like masonry, you know, for buildings and so on. We actually have a shortage of licensed masons in this country. We practically have none, because very few people who have got diplomas in masonry are working in the government. Again, it's a stupid example of a high-tech company. I'm just saying, it's that bad, that even something as basic as construction is being done by people who do not have training and certifiable skills to do it. So imagine your profession and how much more challenging it's going to be. And that's why I believe you're quite right. If you don't overcome the risk of a demographic disaster, and when I say disaster, I mean it very seriously, because it has been proven over the years that there is nothing more dangerous to a society than legions of unemployed and frustrated young men. Particularly men. Women tend to be a little more reasonable, but not all of them. But unemployed young men are the ones who are vulnerable because they see no hope. They don't have the skills to do anything, and therefore they feel they have no stake in the growth of society. So we must train, we must educate, and we must develop skills involving tech, at all levels. I read that Shekhar Kapoor had his iPhone fixed in a kind of junkyard shop in Mumbai, for a fraction of the cost that it would have taken had he gone to an Apple service centre if there wasn't around, and there he was. Imagine if that kid had been trained, how much more he could have accomplished. So we need to catch these skills and develop them, without making people pay a fortune for courses they can't afford to have. Develop this talent and prepare them for the world. Otherwise, we as a society could pay the price. I would make skill development the number one priority.”

Question: What are your thoughts regarding AI and technology's inability to offer empathy, a crucial aspect in the field of HR?

Dr Tharoor: “Empathy is that plus, which implies an ability to feel what the other person is feeling, and it seems to be a civic phenomenon in HR. You can't afford to approach a human resources job. There was a time when it used to be called personnel management, right? Personnel like pawns on a chessboard. They needed human resources to bring in that human aspect. Dealing with human beings requires a human touch, which requires empathy. And maybe one of the things you need to do is to put yourselves through workshops in empathy. Give yourself a weekend doing nothing but workshops on empathy and empathetic management. Finding yourself enacting situations where somebody's performance is down because they're going through a divorce or a husband who's got cancer or whatever. And how do you treat them? If you are capable of thinking in the other person's shoes or through the other person's eyes, you know, it can make a world of difference. You understand a different point of view, there are no assumptions about it. Remember that and we'll all be better at each other. “

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Topics: Technology, Strategic HR, #ArtificialIntelligence, #HRCommunity, #TechHRIN

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