Debugging the UK’s AI skills gap

Generic artificial intelligence stock shot

I recently spoke at the Reuters MOMENTUM virtual global conference on the importance of scaling and harnessing algorithmic decision-making in safe, sustainable and ethical ways as AI becomes more widespread.

One major thing that cropped up was a problem I’ve come across a lot of late: access to talent. Findings from recent research by Microsoft and Ipsos MORI confirm that, despite a number of new AI skills initiatives since the 2018 AI Sector Deal, the gap between demand and supply of AI skills in the UK not only remains more significant than in other countries but also continues to widen.

According to Microsoft, only 17% of UK employees are being re-skilled for artificial intelligence compared with 38% globally. And Ipsos MORI claims that, while there has been a 16% increase for online AI and Data Science vacancies, 69% of these have been hard to fill.

I‘m certain that, when I join the government’s AI Minister Chris Philp at the end of this month for a webcast exploring The Future of Artificial Intelligence, the same issue of access to talent will surface once more. And that’s because the UK simply cannot afford its existing AI skills gap.

The UK’s National Artificial Intelligence Strategy

An important part of Downing Street’s National Artificial Intelligence Strategy — published in September this year and designed to strengthen the UK’s status as a global AI superpower — is attracting top AI talent to the country to resolve the problem.

The government plans to dangle a carrot in front of the best foreign AI talent from a diverse pool by positioning the UK as the best place in the world to work and succeed in artificial intelligence, and by making it easier than ever for researchers from overseas to come here through an array of visa routes.

This will build on Number 10’s previous efforts to develop the UK’s talent pool through training, such as:

  • Investing in The Alan Turing Institute — since 2014, over £46 million has been poured into supporting the Turing AI Fellowships, aimed at developing the next generation of top AI talent.
  • Investing up to £100 million in 16 new AI Centres for doctoral training at universities across the country, resulting in over 1,000 new PhDs since 2014.
Basic UK government infographic saying “Investing in the long-term needs of the AI ecosystem”

AI education

Education is definitely crucial to improving the UK’s talent pool, but its long-term efficacy can be limited. It’s all well and good equipping students with the right skills, but they must actually be able to use them outside of a learning environment.

That’s not always the case, with Ipsos MORI finding some evidence to suggest graduates are often unable to apply their skills to real-world scenarios and/or have insufficient soft skills. But ensuring graduates are industry-ready is another top priority in the UK’s national AI Strategy.

Relevant industry-funded Masters courses are one solution to this problem, providing students with on-the-job experience to increase their employability. EY is a world leader when it comes to skills development, joining forces with Hult International Business School to offer all of its people the chance to earn an EY Tech MBA — covering AI and other subject areas like blockchain and sustainability — for free.

Other private-sector solutions

But this is just one way the private sector can shoulder some of the burden to narrow the UK’s skills gap. Companies can also create more opportunities for those not currently working in AI to convert to a career in AI and make sure such opportunities are promoted sufficiently — especially to non-technical employees.

Simon Lambert, Microsoft’s Chief Learning Officer, agrees. He argues that organisations must continue to focus on up-skilling their workforce to accelerate digital maturity and develop AI understanding.

Unfortunately, not all organisations are as forward-thinking. Ipsos MORI argues that many firms are convinced they shouldn’t be saddled with the responsibility of providing formal AI training to staff already in tech roles, and instead advocate self-directed learning. However, they seem to be more willing to provide informal training.

As with success in many areas of policy, public-private collaboration will be essential here, especially with smaller organisations. The government could encourage such firms to expand their recruitment practices and also provide support to those located outside of major cities to recruit and train workers. Much of the time, recruitment within smaller companies is done by word-of-mouth and networking, which can be cost-effective but it isn’t always the right way to access top human resources.

Final thoughts

In thinking about all of these potential solutions to the scarcity of AI talent, I’m reminded of a fascinating conversation I had with Leanne Pooley, director of We Need to Talk About AI, last year about the specific shortage of talent in safety, sustainability and ethics in AI.

After interviewing the likes of MIT’s Max Tegmark, co-founder of the Future of Life Institute and author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Leanne realised experts in these areas are often more interested in the top dollar offered by Big Tech than going to work for the public sector.

She suggested appealing to those more concerned with prestige than cash, offering something similar to a Nobel Prize for innovations. It’s an interesting idea that certainly piqued my interest at the time, but I now wonder if it was perhaps a little optimistic. I’d say the UK’s current approach is a more realistic way of scaling and harnessing AI safely, sustainably and ethically!

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Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com

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Catriona Campbell

Catriona Campbell

Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position. catrionacampbell.com

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