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AI and the Digital Skills Gap - Curse or Opportunity?

The demand for AI capabilities is experiencing significant growth, and companies in the UK are eager to stay at the forefront of this technological wave.
A study conducted by SnapLogic has unveiled that "93 per cent of organisations in the US and the UK consider AI a top business priority, with projects either in progress or in the planning stages."

However, despite the widespread recognition of the vast potential AI offers in terms of cost savings and efficiency improvements, implementing AI strategies presents its own set of challenges. Surprisingly, more than half (51 per cent) of organisations lack the necessary mix of skilled AI professionals in-house to bring their AI initiatives to fruition.

The shortage of skilled AI talent is the most significant hurdle identified by surveyed businesses in advancing their AI projects. It is followed by constraints related to budget limitations, inadequate access to the right technology, and difficulties in obtaining valuable data.

Evidently, there is a growing digital skills gap that requires attention, with just one in ten global workers possessing the in-demand AI skills. Astonishingly, AI proficiency ranks among the top three most important digital skills, according to a quarter of global workers.

This AI skills shortage carries a substantial economic cost, with the UK economy paying the price to the tune of £12.8 billion (Information Age).

What is causing the AI and digital skills gap?

The rapid pace at which the data and AI field is progressing has resulted in a shortfall of skills and knowledge needed to harness its potential effectively for ambitious business objectives.

Beyond the technical complexities, the sheer scale of AI's ambition is daunting. Hugh Simpson, Founder of Oktet and experienced Data & AI Product Manager said, “AI in the hands of many has the power to accelerate our productivity more than we have seen since the start of the digital revolution”.

In the UK, projections (Forbes) indicate a demand for over half a million new professionals per year in highly skilled digital roles, including AI.

It's not solely the speed of AI advancement that complicates recruitment efforts. AI is an expansive and intricate domain of computer science, even causing the world's wealthiest companies to struggle in recruiting at the rate needed to meet demand.

The evolving nature of AI technology means that new discoveries and innovations regularly reshape the landscape. This presents a paradox, as AI scientists require years of intensive study, but the field is continually evolving. Consequently, academic institutions find it challenging to align their courses with the ever-changing needs of the business world.

How can we address the AI skills shortage?

Investing internally

Organisations facing difficulties in recruiting AI talent may find a partial solution closer to home by equipping current staff with the expertise needed to bridge the digital skills gap.

When asked how they intend to build the right internal AI/ML teams, 68 percent of organisations expressed their plans to invest in training and upskilling existing employees, while 63 percent are providing in-house data analytics training.

While this may serve as a temporary solution until a permanent AI skills gap is filled, enhancing digital and AI literacy across the broader workforce complements other aspects of AI implementation. For instance, it helps establish trust and confidence in AI, influencing the pace of adoption and the extent of its benefits to an organisation.
Broadening the talent pool

Addressing any skills shortage requires businesses to ensure they access the widest talent pool possible, leaving no section of society excluded. This concern is evident in the AI sector, where only 22 percent of AI roles are held by women.

To bridge the digital skills gap successfully, efforts must be made to encourage women and ethnic minorities to enter the field. After all, women constitute 52.7 percent of the UK workforce.

Diversifying the talent pool not only increases the number of candidates but also introduces a broader range of perspectives, leading to improved outcomes. Innovation thrives when diverse viewpoints and approaches are welcomed, whereas a team with uniform backgrounds and perspectives may have knowledge gaps hindering progress. Diversifying the talent pipeline may expedite the closure of AI skills gaps.

AI solving its own problem?

There's also a possibility that AI itself may hold the key to addressing the AI skills shortage. Companies like Google are developing AutoML, which aims to create AI systems capable of teaching themselves to develop further AI systems. If this initiative proves successful, it could be particularly beneficial for mid-sized businesses that struggle to compete with tech giants for top-tier AI talent.

If AI is indeed poised to become the 'new electricity,' as noted by computer scientist Andrew Ng, business leaders must act swiftly to ensure their teams are optimally positioned to reap its benefits.