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Students and new graduates must prepare for the news skills AI will require © Getty Images/Cavan Images

As this year’s graduates prepare to enter the workforce, many are either anxious or flat out terrified about the impact of artificial intelligence — particularly large language models such as ChatGPT — on their careers.

According to a poll by the BestColleges website, six in ten US college students worry that the use of AI in their studies is diminishing the value of earning a degree. Even worse, more than half expect that growing use of AI in the workplace will further devalue the worth of their studies to potential employers.

Fears are particularly rampant that women, who are under-represented in computing and science degrees, will get shut out of the job market. Right now, corporate technology departments are mostly male. Does that mean the gender balance will tilt in other jobs, as AI spreads into marketing and core business functions?

Those concerns are valid if employers, and the hiring algorithms that help sort through CVs, become convinced that technical degrees are required to work with AI tools. Programs such as ChatGPT can make it much easier to work with data and do simple programming because they provide a more intuitive interface. That means students wanting to go into specialised IT or data science jobs will probably need to take more advanced courses to show they have skills in those fields, rather than taking a few courses as part of a liberal arts degree.

But the impact of AI on employability may be quite different outside of computer programming, some employers say.

The rise of AI is already creating new opportunities for students who have studied liberal arts. This is particularly true for writing-intensive subjects, such as English and history, that draw more female students than technology and require students to pull together diverse sources of information. That is because the companies that are starting to use AI to deal with customers are hiring writers to produce scripts and prompts for chatbots to use.

Once graduated, both genders also worry that AI could reshape the job market for entry level work.

Early experiments in the financial and professional services industries do suggest that AI tools will change the way marketing, investment banking and legal documents are created. Those changes could free junior employees from drudgery. But the more work that is turned over to AI, the fewer jobs will be needed. And most of these jobs currently operate on an apprenticeship model, in which doing the grunt work gives young employees a ringside seat for more substantive work.

Senior lawyers and bankers say their businesses are just beginning to grapple with the impact of AI on their recruiting and training plans. They do not want to miss out on hiring top talent, but they fear taking on more entry-level people than they need.

Some also worry that the focus on tech will hit workplace diversity efforts. “It is automation at a completely different level, which is why I’m concerned about women . . . My biggest fear is that women will fall behind again,” says Roya Rahmani, chair of Delphos International, which provides capital markets advisory services.

In the US, employers plan to hire 5.8 per cent fewer new graduates this year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The biggest reported drops were in financial services, computer and electronics manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals.

Yet here, too, fears may be overblown. Employers predict that the use of AI will start to give at least some new graduates an edge. “This generation of students will come out having a baseline knowledge and be more comfortable [with AI] than the people in the workforce now,” says Lisa Donahue, co-head of the Americas and Asia at AlixPartners, a global consulting firm.

Students and new graduates must be prepared for the changes AI will bring to the workplace. Most white-collar jobs, and many others, too, require interaction with large language models, and there is likely to be a premium for workers who can do it well.

As companies depend more on AI to retrieve, condense and synthesise information, there will be greater need for people who can oversee that. Today’s LLMs are already infamous for “hallucinations” — making up answers. Dealing with that problem is likely to create a whole new work stream for humans. That, say employers, should create opportunities for new graduates with good communication skills — an area where some women thrive.

While previous tech booms advanced careers of computer science graduates, who were disproportionately male, this one could play out quite differently.

“We are now all machine operators,” says Michael Zeltkevic, global head of capabilities at Oliver Wyman, a consulting firm. He argues that young graduates can prepare by seeking out courses and training focused on “how do I manage both people and bots? Just like humans, the bots are somewhat unpredictable, but that’s the price of creativity. It’s a new skill.”

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