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AI threatens jobs. For Florida's non-native English speakers, language could be key

Staff, and a dog, work in front of computers at an office.
Jeff Chiu
Cohere employees work at an office in Palo Alto, Calif., in April of 2023. Cohere co-founder and CEO Aidan Gomez co-authored a research paper that's now seen as a foundation for the current wave of artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT.

Two enormous forces are reshaping the American workforce. One has been influencing the labor market for decades. The second is relatively new.

Immigration and artificial intelligence.

The AI revolution has been framed as both an opportunity and threat to workers. Arguably, at least in a political context, the same could be said for immigration.

Few regional economies may experience both more than South Florida with its long history of foreign born residents and industries like healthcare, education and professional services, which may be sensitive to AI.

Immigration has fueled an increase in the presence of foreign-born workers in the American workforce at the same time of growing worries among employees about being replaced by fast-developing AI skills. A new survey suggests that improving English skills may be one way for those non-native speakers to stay ahead of the game.

"People need to AI-proof their careers in the future," said Paula Sacchini, head of marketing for English Language Learning in North America for education company Pearson.

"We think that the English language plays a crucial role here because you need to have the fluency and the skills to overcome the basics of being in the workplace," Sacchini said.

Pearson, which sells English language courses, surveyed non-native English speakers in the Florida job market in English and Spanish.

Some of what it found is obvious. Almost everyone in its survey said the English language is important for their job opportunities. Most people said it helps them get more and better paying jobs, and advance in their careers.

Also, four out of 10 think their jobs will be replaced by AI in the next five years.

"AI can do translations. AI can help people make their work faster," Sacchini said, "but if you want to have the human component as understanding processes, understanding regulations (in) specific industries like medicine or legal, where you have to have this human factor that can help navigate this – AI is not there yet.

"This human connection is essential, and we think the better English skills are developed in the community, the better positions they will have, and the better their future."

The proportion of foreign-born workers in the U.S. is growing. A decade ago, 16.5% of the American workforce were born outside the country. It was 18.6% last year according to Census Bureau data. That represents 5.3 million more foreign-born workers now working in the U.S. compared to 10 years ago.

The proportion of foreign-born workers is likely higher here with 42% of South Floridians born outside the U.S.

While where a worker was born is not a perfect substitute for their native language, it can help give a sense of the potential demand for English language skills by workers, and the need from companies competing for employees in a tight job market.

READ MORE: A consequence of a low jobless rate: not enough qualified workers in South Florida

A survey of Miami-Dade businesses and non-profits this spring found seven out of 10 were having difficulty finding qualified workers for open positions. A handful of those firms cited the lack of language skills of job applicants as one of their recruiting challenges. While the survey did not specifically ask about artificial intelligence, fewer than one in five reported confidence in their preparations for the region's future workforce.

In April, Miami-Dade County commissions approved a series of guidelines for artificial intelligence in county government. Its first of seven goals is to focus "on AI that enhances human work, not replaces it."

The county's Information Technology department developed the guidelines after commissioners voted to generate an AI policy. The report acknowledged one risk of AI in county government is the impact on jobs. It calls for using a "human-centric approach" to developing and deploying AI for county services.

About one in five U.S. workers were in jobs highly exposed to AI in 2022, according to a study from Pew Research. The best known generative artificial intelligence service, ChatGPT, was released by OpenAI in December 2022. Among the industries Pew identified as having a significant proportion of jobs exposed to AI were professional services, finance and real estate.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
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