For generations, junior roles have provided the entry point into prestigious professions like law, finance, accounting, and medicine. I know, as I went through the legal qualification process and recall spending 2 weeks until the early hours each day indexing a meeting room of ring binders on floor to ceiling shelving crammed with documents for a large litigation case. Each night the legal secretaries would work on my index and print it for me to review in the morning. This labour-intensive exercise has long-since been replaced by scanning, optical character recognition and now artificial intelligence (AI) to search the content.
New grads join as trainees, paying their dues by conducting research, analysis, and basic tasks under senior staff. The best are hired and then promoted over time to partner or director.
This applies to all knowledge work over the near-term and even physical labour over the longer-term. This apprenticeship model has also been a rite of passage and has received renewed focus over the last decade. Apprenticeships are a chance for trainees to learn the ropes before progressing up the career ladder. Organisations also rely on this pipeline of junior talent supporting senior professionals.
The Rise of AI
Today, AI poses an existential threat to this career and training framework. Generative AI and Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) models can already create content that generally exceed human capability in both quantity and quality. AI capabilities are advancing exponentially across sectors, achieving expert-level performance in specialised domains such as healthcare. Contract review, financial analysis, radiology diagnosis - tasks that once defined entry-level jobs are now being matched or outperformed by AI. The pyramid of value is being filled by technology and humans have to migrate to the top by adding more value. Trainees are likely to be overtaken.
As this technology improves, the need for trainees conducting repetitive, routine analytical and technical work is evaporating. AI lawyers can already analyse contracts with greater accuracy than any team of human lawyers. In medicine, AI is diagnosing disease from images better than experienced radiologists.
The Disappearing Trainee
Across industries, firms are responding by discontinuing traditional training programs. New AI systems are replacing the grunt work previously completed by trainees. The concept of ‘learning the ropes’ will soon be consigned to history.
In law, new joiners find partners taking routine work directly to AI tools, bypassing junior lawyers altogether. In finance, analysts no longer spend months on Excel models and pitchbooks now handled by AI.
Graduates are going to find themselves stranded as entry-level roles vanish. Hopes of meritocratic promotion ring hollow when there is no base left to the talent pyramid. The traditional career ladder has collapsed.
The Automation Cliff
Make no mistake - these junior jobs are not coming back. As routine tasks are automated, firms no longer need years of cheap human trainees practice menial tasks. The fourth industrial revolution is not like the previous ones as demand will not grow to absorb the almost infinite output of AI, and eventually robots.
For ambitious graduates who invested heavily in education for a dream career, it is a bitter pill to swallow. The coveted training programs of elite firms have evaporated. A new lost generation faces a grim job market.
The Human Skills Imperative
But it's not all doom and gloom. As routine work is automated, uniquely human strengths become more crucial than ever. Creativity, empathy, communication, collaboration, critical thinking - these are innate human talents that AI cannot replicate.
The smartest firms are already reforming training programs to focus on relationship-building, storytelling, and strategic thinking over technical skills. Recruiting now emphasises versatility and the ability to pair human strengths with AI.
There are always new and emerging roles in periods of disruption. Those who can augment automated systems using human abilities will remain in high demand.
Embracing the Change
The implications for organizations are clear: adapt training for an AI-powered future of work or lose the war on talent. The next generation wants human-centred, purpose-driven roles. They see old jobs disappearing and have little loyalty to legacy career paths. Lifelong learning, creativity and human-AI collaboration will define the 21st century worker. For those entering the labour market, at any level, the choice is stark - evolve your abilities or face irrelevance.
The age of the trainee may be over, but for those willing to adapt, working alongside AI unlocks immense new potential.
Thanks for reading.