The future of work isn’t powered by AI. It’s powered by people enabled by AI

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When new technology arrives, we often hear how it will revolutionize work—but it doesn’t always live up to the hype. Why?

Remember when General Motors built a “factory of the future” designed to have robots doing just about everything? There was just one problem: The robots made mistakes, a lot. Buicks ended up with Cadillac bumpers. There were many painting errors. And production costs actually exceeded previous, people-led efforts. The system lacked humans, who could resolve issues quickly, think creatively, and problem-solve in real time.

Today, when business leaders imagine what this new era of AI might hold, be warned: For all the ways we can see AI driving our business forward—unlocking efficiency, driving order, creating space for creativity—it’s nothing without an equally valued talent strategy that fully leverages the power of AI.

That’s why the most important question I’m asking other executives today isn’t just how they’re investing in AI, but rather: “What skills are you investing in for your people in this new AI era?”

The answer, for me, is tried and true: Invest in durable skills like critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence. These are essential qualities that help all workers, from those on the front line to middle-skill and back-office workers. And these skills drive businesses forward with better decisions, new ideas, and stronger results.

In this context, embracing upskilling and training is essential, as is understanding the skills we can unlock. We all think about AI changing our business, and, rightly, we want to get our workforce up to speed and invest accordingly.

At the same time, we tend to underestimate durable skills, also known as human-centric skills. Not in the way they’re valued, per se, but in the way we think about training. These skills can be nurtured, and they can propel businesses forward, in the same way a new technology stack can create outsize value.

The future of work won’t work if we don’t strike a balance.

Durable and in short supply

Another way of thinking about durable skills is as foundational professional skills.

They reflect a range of essential capabilities businesses want in their workforce: crisp decision-making, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, time management, and collaboration. These are attributes of a more agile workforce, which leaders identify as among their top priorities in this current environment. 

Durable skills are also, as the name implies, more durable.

They have a longer half-life—more than 7.5 years in many cases, compared with 30 months for some technical skills. This investment yields longer-term returns for both employers and employees. Developing durable skills can help ensure that when we go through the next rapid iteration of technological change—remember, ChatGPT is not even two years old—we have workforces equipped to think critically about using, managing, and optimizing new technology.

An auto-manufacturing company we connected with recently articulated the balance; its executives see huge potential in rapid upskilling in AI and automation technology to increase productivity, efficiency, and more. Supply-chain management, for example, is better tracked with new technology. At the same time, its upskilling program nurtures durable skills—like leadership, communication, and problem-solving—alongside technical ones. This company sees the combination of these two things as critical for its frontline and middle-skills workforce to maximize the potential of new technology.

Today, a problem that many employers face is that there is a durable skills gap, as much as there is a technical skills gap.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report identified durable skills like leadership, social influence, and creative thinking as among the attributes most coveted by executives and leaders. But the same WEF report highlighted an inconsistency in investment: There is significantly more upskilling investment in areas like AI.

Striking a balance

The current moment requires leaders to do something pretty straightforward but also challenging: Heed your own advice.

If we prize durable, professional skills and capabilities with AI and emerging technology, then we must develop both. The sweet spot comes in finding balance, and the risk is in thinking balance will arrive magically, without an intentional approach.

People often assume that durable skills are derived from experience in places like secondary education or a previous job. This can be true. The skills we are talking about, though, might also arrive through upskilling.

Durable skills serve as a critical, often missing, connection to leadership roles. And the right investments can create those pathways. Think of frontline workers building a solid foundation or someone further along expanding their scope, like deciding how to strategically implement new technology for their company versus simply using it.

In the same way, you can train someone to become a more intuitive prompt engineer; you can nurture a stronger storyteller, program manager, or design thinker. And even in an era of AI-driven efficiency, there are millions of jobs where human-centric, durable skills will be critical or even more important given the work that AI will automate.

To drive a business forward, we must balance looking ahead with what we know will endure—and cultivate both.

Bijal Shah is the interim CEO of Guild. Guild is a partner of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit.

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