An office building from the outside that is disappearing.
It’s top of mind for many Canadians: what jobs are here to stay and which ones will disappear? What skills are future-proof in a world charged with AI? Photo by: Mike Kononov/Unsplash


The AI revolution is here; are you prepared for the future of work?

Which skills are future proof and how TMU is preparing students for AI’s impact

By Michelle Grady

An office building from the outside that is disappearing.
It’s top of mind for many Canadians: what jobs are here to stay and which ones will disappear? What skills are future-proof in a world charged with AI? Photo by: Mike Kononov/Unsplash

The question is on everyone’s minds these days: will AI help or hinder the future of work? Will it enhance human capability, and even create new jobs? Or will it replace human labour, leaving people in a world of ever-shrinking job prospects?

It’s impossible to have a sense of what anything beyond the near future holds, because generative AI is improving exponentially each day and learning things people thought previously impossible in remarkable time. The one certain thing is AI is a paradigm-shifting technology that will dramatically transform the ways we work and the types of jobs that exist.

We can already see these shifts starting to take shape, with researchers across Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) examining the impacts of this tech wave. TMU researchers are working with AI in many ways, investigating how it can be used to solve big challenges like biomedical problems, cancer and neurodegenerative diagnoses, climate change and many others. Faculty members are also integrating it into their curriculum, and preparing their students for an AI-saturated workforce. But they’re divided on whether it’ll have a net positive or negative impact on the future of work.

AI regulation: balancing innovation and responsibility

For most of us, it’s easy to call to mind the positive effect technology has had on our lives—the printing press, the combustible engine and the internet have all ushered in greater innovation.

Less-talked about is what experts call ‘revenge effects’: the unintended consequences of these advancements—job loss, conflict and the proliferation of ever-deadlier weapons. Now, with AI on the brink of human-level intelligence, some people, including those closest to the technology, are calling for a pause on AI development to allow policy and protections to catch up. 

“The impacts and consequences of AI will be greater than earlier rounds of technological innovation, transforming a wide range of careers,” says labour studies researcher Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at TMU. “This is so dramatic because it’s not just affecting physical labour, but also the application of mind to work. When Stephen Hawking starts warning that AI could be the end of humanity, it’s incumbent on us to listen up and take stock of what’s going on.”

Tricia Williams, director of research at the Future Skills Centre (FSC), agrees these calls should be heeded. “There have been some prominent voices in AI raising alarms, and we have to listen to them. This is a place for government policy to step in and think not just of private profits, but public good,” she says. “We have to be thinking about policy frameworks that protect the interests of the most marginalized and vulnerable who are at risk of being excluded in an AI-driven workforce.” 

Just how that might happen is complex, though, because technology is transnational. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘yes, there is reason for concern here.’ Governments should listen and consider reasonable regulations with the right people involved,” says Chris MacDonald, professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management. “However, regulating it is relatively hard because AI research can happen in a huge number of labs and even private homes.”

MacDonald is even more skeptical about the possibility of AI regulation in the workplace. “Workplaces are too variable. It wouldn’t have been productive to tell businesses not to make cars or mechanical looms in the past because they would put drivers and weavers out of work. Instead, we need to allow innovation and put suitable protections in place through labour law,” he says.

"The impacts and consequences of AI will be greater than earlier rounds of technological innovation, transforming a wide range of careers." —Myer Siemiatycki

Williams says it’s too early to know the real impacts of AI, but thinks the implications are neither euphoric nor dysphoric, and more likely somewhere in the middle. “I think AI is at the forefront of some of the most unknown elements of how technology might change the future of work in the coming 20 to 30 years,” she says. “When the internet first came on the scene, we couldn’t conceive of the ways in which it would lead to new occupations like social media influencers or content creators.”

As these shifts start to occur, Siemiatycki says governments and civil society will have to see that workers’ rights are protected. “The technological euphoria is understandable. It’s hard not to be wowed by the potential scope and upside of AI’s applications,” he says. “But we have to be realistic about what is driving this innovation and its current and future applications—the impact and who it benefits or harms is what matters. We need to think about maximizing the benefits and minimizing the harm.”

People working in cubicles.

Will offices as we know them disappear? Photo by: Mike Kononov/Unsplash

In these nascent research stages, though, Williams and the FSC team see tremendous potential. “FSC is keenly aware of the critical importance of labour market information (LMI). Before students pick their majors, many want to know what the job market is like. But most LMI is woefully outdated,” she says. “We’re just starting to understand the capacity to use AI to analyze huge quantities of labour market data, for example the numbers of vacancies, the skill requirements and the salaries.”

FSC collaborated with NPower Canada and CivicAction to develop and test an AI-powered HireNext Tool, which helps employers create more accessible and inclusive job postings in response to feedback from a survey the research team conducted. This tool showed promising early signs of helping connect people with employment opportunities and reduce vacancies across Canada in a variety of sectors.

The job market in an AI-driven world

Staring down artificial general intelligence, (AGI), we’re close to the point where there are no careers that can’t be touched, says Siemiatycki. When we’re talking about the future of work and AI, Siemiatycki says our starting point should be realism. “Technology is introduced to create, sell and profit from innovations that will create wealth for someone or some corporations. This pattern of winners and losers can be traced through every major technological innovation over the past 200-250 years. That’s the nature of innovation in market economies.”

Angela Misri, professor in the School of Journalism and a practising journalist, says journalists will need to catch up or get left behind. “AI is being used in various ways in journalism, and it offers several benefits to news production, one of the primary ones being the ability to handle and analyze vast amounts of data quickly and efficiently,” she says. Data journalists have been using AI for years to identify patterns within datasets, which they say has greatly aided their work.

“Social skills, soft skills, teamwork and collaboration are future-proof skills that will be powerful assets when used in conjunction with technology.” —Tricia Williams

She doesn’t think journalists are a thing of the past, though. “Some jobs may cease to exist, while new roles may be created,” she says. “I think fact checking will become a crucial aspect of journalism. AI currently prioritizes delivering the perceived desired answer, rather than focusing on truth. Journalists, on the other hand, are dedicated to the truth and presenting facts.”

Certain roles will diminish, in her estimation, including copy editing, but journalists should focus their attention on the skills they bring to the trade that AI can’t—that is what Misri is teaching her students now.

“Our value as journalists lies in our original and critical thinking, as well as our care and unique voices,” she says. “Personal interpretation brings the human element to the story. The stories  that resonate with people are often about individuals and evoke emotions. As human journalists, we deliver these elements.”

In the short term, MacDonald says there are some jobs that seem safe from redundancy, especially aesthetics and care workers like nurses and physiotherapists, but AI is evolving at a rapid pace. “I was at a conference a few months ago where a fellow scholar was saying we shouldn’t worry about AI in the classroom too much because luckily, AI can’t do A, B and C.’ And I’m almost positive AI can do all three now. I still think in the medium term, AI is going to have to be integrated into human organizations with person-to-person elements.”

“One of the innovation projects we’re doing in partnership with University Health Network explores the adoption of AI in health care,” says Williams. “Many workers are reluctant to trust or use AI because they fear it, but it can be a valuable tool for health-care professionals. In the case of pharmacists, AI can be used to flag potential medication interactions, and then the pharmacist can have a conversation with the patient. Bringing workers along and harnessing their skills and knowledge of how to use AI effectively requires careful preparation.”

In FSC’s research, they don’t see AI as something that will come in overnight to take over all labour. “We looked at the risk AI poses to certain occupations,” she says. “It tends to be groups of tasks within a role, not necessarily the whole role. Role descriptions and positions will start to shift as some tasks are absorbed by more tech-related capacities.”

Williams says AI can increase productivity in the case of labour and skill shortage as well, which Canada is currently experiencing. In 2022, FSC and the Conference Board estimated that the cost of skill vacancies to the Canadian economy was $25 billion. There are roles available, William says, it’s just about having the right skills. “There will be many positions involving translating AI to human applications and making sense of the technology. Social skills, soft skills, teamwork and collaboration are future-proof skills that will be powerful assets when used in conjunction with technology.”

A person looking into a microscope.

Looking at how to empower people within specific industries to use AI to their advantage will be an important task ahead for Canada. Photo by: Gorodenkoff/iStock

Shifting skill sets: navigating the AI frontier

For those at risk of disruption, additional training and support will be needed to transition into new roles, says Williams. “We need to project the future labour force needs under different AI scenarios. Last year, we released some projections on the labour force needed to reach Canada’s net-zero targets. AI will play a role in this transition, alongside other green technologies.

Every scenario modelled for reaching net zero showed a net increase in jobs.” While the focus is frequently on job loss, Williams says the challenge with AI lies in transferring existing skills to new ones. “We need to upskill and learn new things to adapt to the changing nature of work,” she says. “Government policy should focus on supporting individuals through these transitions, not just regulating companies. We need to embrace lifelong learning and work with employers to identify the skills needed. It’s our only option.”

Misri is facing this challenge head on in the classroom, future-proofing her journalism students by focusing on their interviewing skills to ensure they give news stories a human approach. “I make them do it, we practise going out and getting streeters—asking people questions, approaching strangers,” she says.

“Assignments need to change, they should move away from being written essays to more real-time tasks. Sending journalists out on assignments will be more important than the lengthy essays of the past.”

It’s not just the availability of work in general that’s important to workers; according to FSC’s report on the quality of work and what that means for Canadians, people want to develop skills, learn things and have a trajectory, but also be respected and feel like their work matters. Knowing this, the fear of AI is a very existential one, says Williams.

“It gets to an essentially human concern about our purpose in the world. We need to make sure what we offer workers is more than just a salary and vacation time. We need to offer them a chance to have meaning, contribute, learn, grow and feel like they’re making the planet better.”

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Michelle Grady is a senior writer and editor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

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