AI: The Great Equalizer?

A new study suggests artificial-intelligence tools help rather than hurt lower-skilled workers. How leaders can best close the skills gap.

As a call-center agent, Jeanne had a way with customers. She resolved issues quickly, demonstrating strong technical command of the product and high emotional intelligence. Her productivity and performance soon earned her a promotion to shift manager and, eventually, to manager of the entire call center. Along the way, she repeatedly beat out colleagues with more seniority and training. The secret to Jeanne’s success? AI.

A new study from researchers at Stanford University and MIT suggests that new artificial-intelligence platforms such as ChatGPT could help close the skills gap between workers in some functions, creating more competition for talent. In the study, lower-skilled workers at an unnamed Fortune 500 software firm who had access to AI tools not only finished their work 35% faster than normal, but also were 14% more productive. This enabled them to learn and advance faster than their counterparts—reaching the same level of performance in just two months as their colleagues who had six months or more.

Though there will surely be many more studies of AI in the workplace, these results challenge the notion that the technology will quickly replace lower-skilled workers, says Chris Cantarella, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Software practice.

In fact, Cantarella says, AI could help workers learn the basic skills for a role more quickly, allowing them to develop the communication, critical thinking, leadership, and other soft skills needed to advance. “AI may actually help elevate many lower-skilled workers into more highly skilled positions,” says Cantarella.

While the study’s results are encouraging, they don’t exactly lower the risk for lower-skilled workers of job loss or wage compression due to AI. One recent study predicts that 25% of companies will use chatbots like ChatGPT as their primary channel for interacting with customers by 2027. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023 estimates 83 million jobs will be automated over the next five years, while only 69 million will be created, for a net loss of 14 million worldwide.

Korn Ferry president Doug Charles says AI is already altering the way organizations and leaders think about talent and advancement. But two of the biggest areas of focus right now are leadership and people management, he says—and so far, AI hasn’t been able to help much with either.

According to the study, higher-skilled workers saw little or no gain in productivity from AI tools. The researchers theorized this might be because they already had a firm command of the basic functions of the job. In fact, for some, the use of AI slowed them down.

What they needed help with, however, was decision-making, judgment, emotional intelligence, innovation and ideation, and other factors that aren’t task or process oriented. “AI isn’t much in play in areas like that yet,” Charles says.

From that perspective, some experts argue that higher-skilled workers could hurt their own cause by using AI. As they “teach” AI by feeding it more and more information, they are effectively training and educating lower-skilled workers to be their competition. “AI could be more of an equalizer,” says Cantarella, “creating a larger pool of higher-skilled candidates.”

Learn more about Korn Ferry’s People Strategy and Performance capabilities.