The role of AI in education and the changing US workforce

Rachel Wilson (L), of Rockville, Maryland, speaks with Yash Parbhu of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania while learning about the code for some of Google's new APIs at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco June 26, 2014. Women attendees constituted 20% of the conference's attendance this year, up from 8% last year. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage   (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - GM1EA6R0IP701
Editor's note:

This report is part of “A Blueprint for the Future of AI,” a series from the Brookings Institution that analyzes the new challenges and potential policy solutions introduced by artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and emerging technologies (ET) is poised to reshape the workforce. While the exact impact of AI and ET is unclear, experts expect that many jobs currently performed by humans will be performed by robots in the near future, and at the same time, new jobs will be created as technology advances. These impending changes have important implications for the field of education. Schools must prepare students to remain competitive in the labor market, and postsecondary institutions must provide students and displaced workers with relevant education and retraining opportunities. Innovations in technology will also create new tools to support educators, students, and others seeking retraining and employment.

Consequently, there is a multitude of policy-relevant questions that we may consider with respect to how AI and ET will impact education. Rather than focus on just one of these many questions, this paper provides an overview of some of the most salient issues we should consider with respect to what technological advances in AI and ET mean for education. Specifically, this paper discusses several types of challenges, opportunities, and risks that AI and ET pose to the field of education. This paper then concludes with several recommendations for adapting education in anticipation of the changes associated with advances in AI and ET.

Central challenges facing education

The types of jobs that are at the least risk of being replaced by automation involve problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, communication, and creativity. The education profession is unlikely to see a dramatic drop in demand for employees given the nature of work in this field. Rather, preparing students for the changing labor market will likely be a central challenge for schools and educators. Policymakers and practitioners must adapt K-12 education to help students develop the skills that are likely to remain in demand (sometimes referred to as “21st century skills”). K-12 education should thus prioritize teaching critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork across subject areas. Teaching students to become analytical thinkers, problem solvers, and good team members will allow them to remain competitive in the job market even as the nature of work changes. Equally important, these skills form a strong foundation for independent thinking that will serve students well no matter what career(s) they pursue throughout their lives.

K-12 education should prioritize teaching critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork across subject areas. Teaching students to become analytical thinkers, problem solvers, and good team members will allow them to remain competitive in the job market even as the nature of work changes.

In addition, an increasing demand for technologically skilled workers likely means that proficiency in education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects can position students to be competitive in the workforce. Education in STEM subjects should certainly be a priority, particularly given low levels of proficiency nationwide and large achievement gaps. However, given the increasing importance of developing critical thinking skills that span multiple subject areas, providing high-quality instruction in the STEM fields is only part of the solution to preparing students for the changing workforce.

Further, providing Americans with opportunities for lifelong learning will be central to helping displaced workers find new career pathways. Darrell West explains this shifting employment terrain: “In the contemporary world, people can expect to switch jobs, see whole sectors disrupted, and need to develop additional skills as a result of economic shifts. The type of work they do at age 30 likely will be substantially different from what they do at ages 40, 50, or 60.” Individuals need to be equipped to navigate this ever-changing environment which requires them to identify alternative careers, enroll in and complete relevant education and training programs, and find jobs upon graduation.

Providing high-quality instruction in the STEM fields is only part of the solution to preparing students for the changing workforce.

Completing these steps is easier said than done. Anthony Carnevale, Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, explains: “Educational pathways are largely disconnected from the job market, which inhibits students’ ability to see their future career pathways lucidly. Policymakers, postsecondary officials and students are not provided with data that keeps them informed.” As new technologies continue to reshape the nature of work and the types of jobs available for humans, it is increasingly important to design policies and programs that help individuals find and complete appropriate education, career, and retraining pathways.

Opportunities through AI and ET

While changes in AI and ET create challenges, these technological advancements also provide opportunities. First, innovations in artificial intelligence can provide teachers with valuable resources. Blended learning, defined as “the strategic integration of in-person learning with technology to enable real-time data use, personalized instruction, and mastery-based progression,” uses emerging technology to help teachers personalize education for individual students. This approach is generally known as personalized learning. Studies have found that personalized learning is a promising approach, although implementation challenges remain. Rigorous evaluation of ongoing experimentation with blended and personalized learning will be critical to developing effective approaches to using technology in the classroom. One lesson, described in multiple analyses, is the importance of supporting teachers and educators in using technology to enhance their instruction.

Second, AI and other emerging technologies can be used to create scalable resources that support large numbers of students and others as they navigate education, training, and career pathways. Promising innovations include a conversational AI system that uses personalized text message outreach to help incoming college students complete required pre-matriculation tasks. The University of Virginia, through its “nudge4” center, is working on innovations that leverage technologies to support students and others, such as a current project that seeks to use machine learning to provide personalized transfer guidance to community college students. Interactive online resources, such as the Skillful Initiative, provide resources for job seekers, employers, and career coaches. These innovations and others like them suggest that even as the workforce evolves due to changes in technology, policymakers and educators can simultaneously leverage technological advancements to support students on their higher education pathways and to connect adults with education and career opportunities.

Risks associated with AI and ET

While AI and ET allow for innovations in supporting students and job seekers, impending changes in the workforce also pose substantial risks. First, existing educational inequities may worsen, accompanied by negative downstream consequences. Nationally representative assessments reveal large and persistent gaps in student achievement by race and income. High-income students are also more likely than low-income students to complete college, even as completion rates among low-income students have risen. Compounding this problem, differences in school resources that correlate with residential and income segregation mean it is likely that the schools best poised to prepare students for changes in the workforce are those that serve children from higher income families.

Differences in school resources that correlate with residential and income segregation mean it is likely that the schools best poised to prepare students for changes in the workforce are those that serve children from higher income families.

In this context, policies designed to help students prepare for the future workforce that fail to account for existing inequalities will likely perpetuate these inequalities. For example, based on research about how students responded to newly available information on earnings via the College Scorecard, researchers Harry Holzer and Sandy Baum argue that “[j]ust making general information available is unlikely to significantly improve the college decisions of students from less-privileged backgrounds.” Without sufficient attention from policymakers, existing inequalities may widen as the job market contracts.

Second, adapting education to meet changes in the workforce carries the risk of creating overly narrow education goals. In the United States, preparing students to enter the workforce has long been one of the central goals of education. But it is not the only goal, nor should it be. Additional goals include preparing students to engage productively with other members of society and to participate in civic life and the democratic process. For now, there seems to be at least some bipartisan consensus that the goals of education include but are broader than workforce development, reflected in the lack of movement on (and criticism of) the Trump administration’s recent proposal to merge the Departments of Education and Labor. Anticipated changes in the workforce wrought by advances in technology do not require us to abandon longstanding goals of education.


Given these challenges, risks, and opportunities, this paper makes several recommendations with respect to education policy to help students and workers adapt to changes in the workforce given advances in AI and ET.

Recommendation 1: State standards and curricula should incorporate 21st century skills across subject areas. The Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, increased states’ flexibility in determining how to hold schools accountable for student learning. While high-stakes tests (particularly in math and reading) are still likely to inform what students learn, schools have renewed latitude to focus on 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and teamwork. States can prioritize these skills by incorporating them into subject-area standards and curricula. Multiple resources exist to facilitate these changes in different subject areas, including the Next Generation Science Standards and the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards. This is not a prescription for states to adopt a certain set of standards. Rather, these standards and frameworks may serve as valuable resources for states seeking to help students develop the skills that will likely be in high demand as AI and ET reshape the workforce.

Under ESSA, schools have renewed latitude to focus on 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and teamwork. States can prioritize these skills by incorporating them into subject-area standards and curricula.

Recommendation 2: Federal legislation and policy should explore and support workforce development partnerships. Building partnerships between educators at the postsecondary level and employers is crucial for providing students with opportunities to pursue careers that are likely to remain available to humans. At the same time, creating meaningful partnerships requires investments in time and resources on both sides. Building a strong evidence base about how to design and implement effective partnerships between employers and two- and four-year colleges can help convince schools and employers to invest in these partnerships and can support them in providing effective programs.

The federal government can provide valuable leadership in this area. The Trump administration’s National Council on the American Worker could explore promising models of these partnerships, convene educators and employers to discuss potential paths forward, and identify concrete policies that the federal government could pursue to facilitate innovation in this area. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the Department of Education, recently announced plans to expand coverage of postsecondary education “especially with regard to career and technical training” in the What Works Clearinghouse, a federal repository of evidence-based research on education. This expanded coverage could include research on partnerships between postsecondary institutions and employers, with the aim of understanding how to create a system in which students successfully navigate from college to careers.

Recommendation 3: Support displaced workers and other “non-traditional students” in their search for new career pathways. As advances in AI displace current members of the workforce, people who have been in the workforce for years will need support in finding new careers. Given the difficulty of navigating education and career pathways, supporting these individuals should be a high priority. Existing resources, such as one-stop career centers provided for under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA), will become increasingly important. Continued investment in these brick and mortar resources alongside rigorous evaluation of their programming will improve our knowledge of how to design and provide effective career services. WIOA also allocates funds to study the effectiveness of workforce development systems with respect to “assisting workers to obtain the skills needed to utilize emerging technologies.” This funding is one example of how federal policy can support research and development of programs designed to support workers as the type of available work changes.

Creating and disseminating online resources designed specifically for this population is also important. For example, Georgetown’s Carnevale advocates creating online matching systems that “tie job exchanges (online job-search engines) to learning exchanges that match job openings and career pathways to available courses offered by postsecondary institutions in the classroom and online.” Other online resources such as the Skillful Initiative, mentioned above, provide support for job seekers, employers, and career coaches. Building an evidence base through rigorous evaluation of these and similar programs will be crucial to identifying effective support systems.


This paper has discussed several of the major challenges and opportunities that AI and ET pose to educators at the K-12 and postsecondary levels, given predicted changes in the workforce. Two broad lessons arise from this discussion. First, leveraging advances in AI and ET may allow for scalable programs capable of reaching many different types of individuals who will need support adapting to changes in the workforce. Second, investing in innovation and evaluation of promising programs to address these challenges should be a high priority for the philanthropic and business communities as well as for policymakers at every level of government.


  • Footnotes
    1. According to Darrell West and John Allen, who draw on Shubhendu and Vijay, AI generally refers to “machines that respond to stimulation consistent with traditional responses from humans, given the human capacity for contemplation, judgment and intention.” Further, these systems “make decisions which normally require [a] human level of expertise” and “operate in an intentional, intelligent, and adaptive manner.”
    2. According to a 2017 analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute, the types of tasks that have the least potential for automation include managing and developing people, applying expertise to decision making, planning, and creative tasks, interfacing with stakeholders (such as greeting customers at a store or explaining service information to customers from a call center), and performing physical tasks or operating machinery in unpredictable physical environments (p. 42).
    3. West 2018, p. 109.
    4. In a recent report, the Council of Economic Advisers similarly identifies an information gap as a barrier in connecting workers to promising jobs and careers.
    5. Bailey and Dynarski 2011.
    6. Holzer and Baum 2017, p. 123.
    7. Conversations about preparing students for the workforce will likely engage with other questions about what the goals of education are, such as whether attending a four-year college should be the ultimate goal. These are difficult questions without clear answers; not every good-paying career requires a four-year degree, but all students deserve a K-12 education that prepares them to enroll in and complete a four-year degree program. Addressing these questions in discussions over how to prepare the future workforce can help avoid negative unintended consequences, such as tracking some students into vocational pathways rather than giving all students the opportunity to prepare for a four-year degree program.
    8. Wyner 2014.