Artificial Intelligence: Addressing The AI Talent Gap

Businesses want to integrate AI strategies, but they quite literally can’t get the staff

Sourcing talent is an ongoing and important task for global organisations from startups to international governments. As technology continues to augment business processes, employing people with relevant expertise is a serious priority. Data scientists and engineers are in high demand – but supply is low. In fact, according to Element AI, there are only 10,000 people in the world with the necessary skills to handle complex Artificial Intelligence research. What can be done to close the AI talent gap, and who is responsible for making it happen?

The tech factor

According to Danny King, CEO of digital credential management company Accredible, one of the major issues concerning the AI talent gap is the lack of a defined vocabulary.

“There just isn’t a really good definition of AI. If you were to take a course in AI, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to just do a job,” he says. “There are so many sub specialisations and niches within it. Experience becomes really important but there aren’t all that many people who have that. It’s almost like saying I need to hire a ‘business person’.”

What exactly can businesses do to close the talent gap? King suggests internal training for their existing workforce, by instructing them in certain subsections of AI. Facebook, for example, has created the Facebook AI Academy to educate their current engineers. It’s also up to businesses to attract talent as well as sourcing and sustaining it. According to King, they can do this by being more open minded about the qualifications they accept.

“Employers who are hiring for things like AI are still hung up on traditional credentials. They want to see an advanced PhD in AI, or a Masters, and the truth of it is that there aren’t many people who have managed to get to that stage,” he explains. “In programming, where there’s also a shortage of programmers, coding boot camps have sprung up where you can learn to code in three or six months. A lot of companies are now hiring from boot camps and I think we’ll see the same in AI. We don’t necessarily always need to look for Cambridge PhDs.”

The MOOC movement

Educators themselves are also contributing through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These mass participant, digital classes are now offered by some of the world’s most prestigious universities, including Oxford, Stanford and Yale. Coursera, for example, was founded by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. The venture backed company offers over 2,600 courses in partnership with 160 academic institutions worldwide. There is also a Coursera for Business site where teams can ‘arm their talent with industry leading skills’. Another similar provider is Udacity. The wider availability of online courses, particularly in technology, is part of the EdTech movement that seeks to change the methods and processes of traditional teaching.

Dhawal Shah, founder of online course search site Class Central, explains that MOOCs are still transitioning into valued qualifications.

“MOOCs work best as a resume item, when you already have a base degree and you want to show something extra,” he says. “I don’t think employers are that aware of what a MOOC is and what the credentials mean. There is so much variation in the way these credentials work across different platforms. There has to be consolidation and some way of communicating what they mean.”

At the same time, Shah says that MOOCs can provide a stepping stone towards better prospects by improving knowledge and confidence.

“Generally, the way education works is that you spend the first 25 per cent of your life preparing for the rest of it without having any experience of what you want to do. Suddenly you have no access to information or resources because all of them are for full time students. People can still enrol on university courses, but they are expensive in terms of money and time. Online courses offer an opportunity. For many, there is no other option.”

Closing the talent gap

Bridging the talent gap could accelerate AI research, opening up more real world applications. Businesses will need to work even harder to find people with relevant skills. As employability requirements evolve, so will institutionalised education. Technologies such as advanced robotics, Virtual Reality and 3D printing will become a regular part of the learning experience, with an emphasis on STEM subjects. King, though, says that convincing universities to change won’t be easy.

“A lot of people are frustrated with the status quo of the education system and are looking for ways to disrupt that. But there are now lots of alternative types of education which are more efficient, because they’re market place driven, and fit education around your life, instead of your life around education.”

Shah agrees, but states that educational institutions, particularly universities, are working to change.

“It’s easy to blame the universities but in general everybody has been behind on this. AI came up very fast,” he says. “Traditional universities are starting to catch up, and there are now really good courses that are taught by universities in AI, machine learning, deep learning.”

The key to digital success is talent, but getting hold of that talent is no mean feat. Fortunately, academic institutions, companies, and online education providers are combining their efforts to find and foster talent. Organisations can enrich their staff through internal training, while at the same time creating the right conditions to accumulate and retain new talent. Businesses could also address the skills gap by recognising non traditional qualifications like MOOCs and boot camps. However, despite how much businesses need AI specialists, it isn’t an open door. According to Shah, the demand is for certain individuals. This means that understanding the breadth of AI is essential, and it’s not just a business dilemma – it’s a societal shift.

Does the education system need to change to accommodate the AI skills gap? How far are governments responsible for encouraging the development of technological skills? How does your business attract and retain talent? Please share your thoughts.

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