Event round up: Ministerial Roundtable on AI Skills with DCMS
The UK must develop, attract and train the best people to build and use artificial intelligence (AI) in order to maintain the country’s position as a world-leader in this field and unlock the societal and economic benefits this technology can bring. However, accessing talent will be one of the biggest challenges of 2023, as shown by techUK’s most recent Digital Economy Monitor.
On 23rd January 2023, techUK hosted a ministerial roundtable co-chaired by Paul Scully, the Minister for Tech & the Digital Economy from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and Sue Daley, Director of Tech & Innovation at techUK. The roundtable welcomed leaders from across the tech industry for a discussion about the most pressing challenges they face when looking to hire AI talent and how collaboration with government could help businesses find solutions.
Roundtable attendees agreed that although the AI skills gap is a persistent issue, there are a number of solutions that could help reduce its impact on businesses. Attendees were particularly keen to discuss how government and industry can work together to inspire young people to pursue a career in AI and support businesses to prioritise investment in employee reskilling and upskilling. techUK and the Office for AI will continue to work together with industry partners to develop these ideas into actionable next steps. This will not only help to drive the UK’s position as a global AI leader, but also provide rewarding careers for people across the country.
A summary of the key insights from the roundtable discussion can be found below*.
Roundtable attendees reported a variety of barriers affecting the hiring of AI talent in the UK:
- Demand for AI talent continues to outpace supply
Increased digitisation across businesses, particularly since the pandemic, has considerably heightened the demand for skilled employees to lead this transformation. However, the supply of AI talent is struggling to keep up, hampering the ability of businesses to progress AI projects.
- The UK’s education pipeline produces highly talented graduates, but more could be done to make it AI-ready
Data-driven technologies, such as AI, rarely feature in the classroom and the development of foundational skills needs more attention. A negative culture around maths may be turning capable people away from a career in tech. It was also noted that new entrants often lack soft skills which need to be developed.
- Pathways into the AI workforce can be a limiting factor
The number of entry-level roles for talented individuals to break into AI is too low. For the roles that do exist, entry-level individuals often have a lack of awareness about career pathways and a lack of understanding as to what a career in data and AI means in reality. Some businesses are hesitant to hire and upskill less experienced workers, with attendees raising concerns such as the need to produce results quickly, a risk of poaching or an improper understanding of the benefits entry-level employees can bring.
- Corporate culture can hold back innovation
The culture of an organisation can either be a catalyst for innovation or a hindrance. In many companies, middle-management and senior leadership may not be convinced on the benefits AI can bring, or are concerned about institutional change, and consequently stall projects.
- Diversity is still lacking in AI
The tech industry is in crucial need of more representation from women and people from diverse backgrounds. Diversity of thought is particularly important for effective and ethical problem-solving in AI, encouraging innovation and mitigating bias in autonomous systems. If businesses fail to be inclusive, they will artificially limit the size of the talent pool.
- A smaller talent pool is impacting salary expectations
Many businesses, especially small and medium sized enterprises, struggle to compete with big tech companies on the salaries they are able to offer. This has artificially inflated the salary expectations of new entrants, making it difficult for businesses to attract and retain talent.
In the second half of the session, roundtable attendees discussed how government and industry could work together to unlock the potential for AI in the UK and possible solutions to address these challenges:
- The convening role of government
Government can work with industry collaboration to support the growth of AI skills and drive a greater impact. The UK government is already working to boost AI skills through a number of pioneering programmes. From Industry funded AI Masters courses and the AI and Data Science Conversion Course scholarship programme, to investing £117 million to train doctoral researchers in AI and £46 million in Turing AI Fellowships.
- Initiatives to actively encourage diversity
Initiatives such as mentorships and hackathons can inspire individuals from all walks of life, challenge the view that a career in AI is not for everyone, and find untapped pools of talent. Role models are a powerful mechanism to show young people that a career in AI is possible for them, especially for underrepresented groups in tech.
- Design an education pipeline that is flexible and agile
As we transition towards an AI-enabled economy attendees suggested a review of how the education pipeline can be made more flexible and agile to support this transition, including ways for AI to play a role in everyone’s learning pathway. This could involve equipping schools with the tools and skills to enthuse young people, particularly on foundational skills such as maths and data.
- Challenge recruitment practices and build career pathways
Attendees discussed ways for businesses to develop the talent they need by tapping into non-traditional pools of talent and using competency-based hiring, as opposed to selection processes that are dependent on qualifications and years of experience. On-the-job training was also discussed as a way to develop the technical and soft skills needed, for example through bootcamps or professional training courses that could also help to promote diversity in hiring processes.
- Upskilling at scale
Options could be developed to promote the upskilling of talented individuals at scale in a practical and tangible way, for example through a National Reskilling Framework.
- Learning from best practice
Businesses can learn from organisations and countries leading on digital transformation and exchange knowledge on best practice. Approaches to pool resources and maximise the impact of investment in a coordinated way could also be explored.
Call to action!
The AI and Data Science Conversion Course programme is already starting to address many of these issues. By funding the development of courses from non-STEM backgrounds, the programme has created a pathway for a wider pool of talent to join the AI workforce. The programme also funds scholarships for students from underrepresented backgrounds, and for each scholarship that industry funds, government will fund an additional three across the programme. These scholarships are a core part of this government's strategy for AI skills, and will help us create a long-term, sustainable pipeline of diverse AI talent. They are already increasing the talent pool, and driving increased diversity - with nearly 4000 students enrolled so far and a 32% increase in women on the courses against comparable masters provision. Businesses can find out more about how to fund scholarships here.
This insight was co-authored by Liv Livesey, a Policy Advisor for AI Skills from the Office for AI, DCMS and Farzana Chowdhury, Programme Manager for AI Adoption from techUK. If you would like further information about getting involved in future AI initiatives, please contact [email protected].
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