Leadership   //   March 26, 2024

How employers are helping prep the youngest generation of workers in AI

More employers are collaborating with higher education institutions to train young people on how to use generative AI so they can hit the ground running when they enter the workforce.

Last September, IBM committed to training 2 million students in AI by 2026. Amazon swiftly followed suit, announcing it would provide free AI skills training to 2 million people by 2025 and $12 million in generative AI scholarships.

Their pledges are part of growing efforts to ensure that the next generation of workers understands how AI is changing work as we know it today and are altering job requirements. Given the nascency of the tech, relatively few students are using it yet. Only 38% of students reported using AI at least monthly, according to a report by education technology firm Anthology. Meanwhile, only 20% of students in the U.S. have said they use generative AI, per a global study from another ed-tech firm Chegg.

Despite low usage of generative AI, six in 10 students polled are “somewhat or very” comfortable with AI chatbots. But while some might assume that this generation, who grew up on technology, might be the most adept at learning how to use it, it’s not necessarily the case. WorkLife previously reported that Gen Z workers are actually not always the most tech-savvy in the workplace and that it’s become a growing problem. 

Given how fast AI technology can develop, educational institutions have carefully considered how they can equip students. At some schools, that looks like additional funding: the University of Albany invested $200 million into AI, the Indiana University at Bloomington received a $60 million donation to boost AI and Miami Dade College is spending $5 million each for AI centers on two campuses.

But industry experts are urging caution and thoughtful approaches to ensure the rollout is executed the right way. That’s where employers are stepping up to the plate.

Preparing students for the AI-connected workforce

Grammarly is a tool students have been using for years, but recently, it’s been boosted because new tools announced last year were around generative AI. It provides real-time feedback to improve student writing, support for articulating ideas, preparation for an evolving job market and more. Over 3,000 institutions use it, according to the app. Some of those have reached out to Grammarly for help. 

“What we’ve seen is just an incredible amount of intrigue, fascination, and also fear around this new tool,” said Jenny Maxwell, head of Grammarly for Education. “It’s the fear of, ‘what does this tool mean for me — the instructor or the institution? How much pressure am I going to be under to completely overhaul how I teach and prepare and assess students?’ We’re working closely with institutions to sort of level set on what this means in reality, how you get started and how to move away from the fear side of the spectrum and toward the fascination, intrigue and excitement about what this technology can do for both teaching and learning.”

For example, the University of Texas at Dallas, Naveen Jindal School of Management adopted Grammarly for its entire business school in 2021, and was one of the first adopters of Grammarly’s generative AI features in summer 2023. The University told Grammarly that the tool helped it ensure equitable access to helpful generative AI tools to prepare their students for the AI-connected workforce.

"We’re working closely with institutions to sort of level set on what this means in reality and how you get started and how to move away from the fear side."
Jenny Maxwell, head of Grammarly for Education.

At Iowa State University, the faculty, staff and students use Grammarly frequently including the latest AI-assisted features.

But there is a disconnect between how well employers and universities believe students are prepared for the workforce. Most (92%) of higher ed professionals said their institutions had effective career-preparation initiatives while only 11% of business leaders said they believed college graduates were well prepared for the workforce, according to Grammarly’s report, done in partnership with publisher Higher Ed Dive.

Demand from educational institutions for Grammarly’s consultation services has risen, according to Maxwell. And they all have the same challenge, regardless of level of prestige: how to scale it and fast, she stressed.

Similarly, business intelligence and analytics software Tableau, which was acquired by Salesforce in 2019, has worked with institutions to provide further understanding of AI, specifically how data is used with AI. Tableau has equipped more than 3 million students and instructors at more than 5,500 institutions with data skills, including Michigan State, Miami University, Florida International University and Butler University. 

“Educators are trying to figure out how to get their arms around AI,” said Courtney Totten, who oversees Tableau’s data skills and academic programs. “I think that we’re still trying to catch up with data education and being comfortable with that. So put another layer of something very technically complex on top of it, they need support. The biggest places to come for support are organizations, corporations.”

Tableau offers an AI Fundamentals course, free for students through Salesforce’s Trailhead platform, that’s designed to teach important AI basics such as ethics and mitigating bias. An additional 2,000 instructors have downloaded their AI fundamentals workbook, assisting approximately 40,000 students. 

“I feel like it’s our responsibility to demystify it for the instructors of the world so they can take the information to their students and help them be more prepared,” said Totten. “The challenge with academia is the time to implement. Once they decide they want to add a topic, subject or course, it can take several months to even years to get that built in.”

Her hope is that Tableau’s offerings can help fill some of those gaps with mini courses, which are also more feasible for instructors to get their arms around.

A global effort to prepare workforces for AI

Both IBM and Amazon’s commitments extend beyond the U.S. Similarly, Microsoft announced plans in February to train 2 million people in India with AI skills by 2025. This will help to close skills gaps across the nation and strengthen India’s ability to thrive in the AI era. 

Tableau has also stepped up its international efforts, having assisted global universities including the London School of Economics, University of Melbourne, Taisho University, and Nanyang Technological University.

Part of software firm SoftServe’s Environmental, social, and governance strategy now incorporates AI education. Historically, SoftServe has partnered with dozens of universities in Eastern Europe to highlight IT careers, and now has a new focus on AI.

“We have to understand that preparing new talents for IT industries starts from colleges and universities,” said Galyna Datsiv, vp of learning and development at SoftServe. “It’s very important for universities to be at the same pace and speed that technologies are being developed.”

SoftServe provides masterclasses for teachers to understand how AI tools can help them in their classes, and how students might use them. One masterclass provided for 10 universities in Colombia focused on best practices for AI tools and was attended by 150 teachers. In Ukraine, an automation course had more than 500 participants, including a special session about using ChatGPT in higher education. A technical boot camp for teachers had 2,000 participants.

“Our purpose is to give educators a better understanding of how they can leverage AI tools and apply them to their everyday jobs,” said Datsiv. 

They have similar learning opportunities for students as well to provide examples of how generative AI might be impacting their career paths and what they can do to stay ahead of it.

Starting prep as early as 8th grade

Learning AI doesn’t need to just start at the higher education level either. IBM’s commitment to train 2 million learners in AI by the end of 2026 begins much earlier. Most recently, the tech giant partnered with Usher’s New Look – a nonprofit organization dedicated to training under-resourced young people to become leaders – to provide free career readiness training through IBM SkillsBuild. It has a significant focus on AI and helping students, as early as eighth grade, understand how it relates to workplace skills. 

In a recent U.S. YouGov survey on AI in education, 61% of respondents reported it is very or somewhat necessary for K-12 students to learn AI-related skills for their future careers. “This is going to be completely transformative for our organization and for the youth that we serve,” said Careshia Moore, president and CEO of Usher’s New Look.

"This is going to be completely transformative for our organization and for the youth that we serve."
Careshia Moore, president and CEO of Usher's New Look.

For Usher’s New Look, which works with people aged between 14 and 24 years old, the training will include resume-writing with generative AI, building their own AI chatbot and mastering the art of AI prompting. Plus, students will have access to more than 1,000 free courses in IBM SkillsBuild as well as digital credentials, including coursework in AI fundamentals, generative AI, AI ethics, prompt writing, machine learning, AI to help the environment, and improving customer service with AI.

“AI is not a space we weren’t previously able to expose to our young people,” said Moore. “We know it’s here, we all use it every day. But as far as careers and gaining knowledge on how AI impacts our lives and how it will in the future, we did not have that piece. It’s going to be a part of the future for the young people we serve.”

Other non-profit organizations are doing similar work, including the Mark Cuban Foundation AI Bootcamps Initiative, which is set to help high school students learn the latest developments of AI in more than 18 cities across the U.S., entirely free. Teachers consist of volunteers from local businesses and corporations and have previously included AI experts from Walmart and McDonald’s.  

“We want to make sure that they are on the forefront of learning about it, how to use it to impact their lives, but also being prepared for future careers,” said Moore. “Them gaining the experience now will increase their resume, give them opportunities that they can be confident and have additional knowledge.”