Esther Animashaun was working as a sales associate for stationery retailer Moleskine when opportunity came knocking. Having dropped out of college uninspired by what she was learning, Esther still refused to give up on a career in IT. But she was after something different and one day she found it via an apprenticeship provider. Esther is now working to plug a gaping hole in the UK’s IT skills pipeline, the result of burgeoning demand for artificial intelligence technology. AI investment is gaining momentum; 42 per cent of companies are planning to ramp up spending over the next five years and one in five has recently done so, according to a new survey by the Confederation of British Industry in association with IBM.
The benefits are irresistible. AI technologies promise to improve operational efficiency and reduce costs, they also upgrade legacy IT systems, improve data and analytics, enhance client services and, as a result, increase revenue generation.
Experts estimate that over the next six months business leaders plan to hire more programmers, project managers and apps developers. And within the next three years the emphasis will be on finding data analysts, cyber security experts and artificial intelligence and automation specialists.
The only problem is that workers like Esther are thin on the ground. According to MPs, the UK will have a shortfall of 745,000 workers with the necessary digital skills by the end of the year and looming immigration controls are doing us few favours.
Digital skills are generally understood to be the ability to use computers and digital devices to access the internet; the ability to code or create software and to critically evaluate media. The Tech Partnership, the UK’s vehicle for action on digital skills also highlights information management, communication, problem solving and creativity. These, they say, are the skills most highly prized by employers.
What’s meant by artificial intelligence also needs definition. AI is often used very loosely to describe various technologies capable of addressing operational efficiency and other needs. They fall — broadly — into three business categories:
- Robotic Process Automation: to replace manual handling of repetitive and high-volume tasks.
- Machine Learning: using vast amounts of data to train a system and fine tune it (Deep Learning is a specific method of machine learning and has been a game-changer in this space).
- Cognitive Analytics: making deductions from vast amounts of data, using processes that mimic the human brain.
Unusually for someone working in a field as specialised as AI, Esther has no university degree. She and four male colleagues have been hired by back-office solutions company Voyager to bolster its Robotic Process Automation (RPA) development team, in response to competition from offshore service providers. RPA is, in the short term, expected to account for a large slice of AI spending, particularly within the financial sector where Voyager operates. The apprentices are learning to model business processes and training robots to interact with a wide range of systems. They work for the company for four days a week and study for the remainder.
Insurance provider Aviva is another example of a company that’s investing heavily in AI and associated technologies. Aviva’s technology hub for product development has radically streamlined customer services, but it’s also meant changing skill set requirements for the firm; rather than recruiting for actuaries, Aviva now can’t hire enough data scientists.
Aviva’s experience reflects what is likely to be a common pattern: a focus by future thinking employers and employees on those areas which the machines won’t replace. In the age of AI, machines won’t take over the digital world (studies indicate that only 5% of jobs can be completely automated), but the scope of that world will radically increase.
The financial sector is a pertinent example. Management consultancy Opimas forecasts that, by 2025, AI will lead to around 230,000 less jobs in the sector. Asset management will shrink the most, with around 90,000 people being replaced by machines. On the other hand, close to 30,000 new jobs will be created for technology and data providers, in response to the financial industry’s increasing requirements and demands.
Thus AI can be viewed as a building block for digital skills. Job candidates, like Esther, who have passion and a desire to learn (rather than those with highly-defined technical skills) may be the best way to bridge the gap and to avoid job automation for tech roles in the future, with training on the job increasingly prevalent. A survey by recruitment agency Mortimer Spinks indicates that 33 per cent of new tech and digital workers enter the sector through cross-training via unofficial means, such as shadowing or learning in their own time. Paul Church, director at Mortimer Spinks, warns: “If you don’t have a desire to learn, you are going to get left behind.” The research also found that 76 per cent of non-technical or non-digital workers would consider a career in tech or the digital sector, which indicates a willingness to re-skill.
The UK government is also plugging the digital skills gap by introducing new training measures. Five international tech hubs in emerging markets are being created to develop partnerships between local tech firms and UK companies, encouraging collaboration on skills, innovation, technology and research. The government’s digital strategy, introduced earlier this year, promises four million free digital skills training opportunities. The government has partnered with a number of leading companies such as Lloyds, Barclays and Google pledging to provide face-to-face training for individuals, charities, small and medium businesses and children.
But experts warn that, despite their increasing availability, public and private incentives may not be enough to plug the gap without a great deal more funding, and current training and learning systems will not match needs within a decade. There are also people who are incapable of or simply uninterested in self-directed learning.
In fact, alarm bells are ringing about the disappointing number of children, particularly girls, signing up to do the UK’s new computer science GCSE. A couple of years ago, in response to concerns about the changing technology landscape, the government made it mandatory for children aged between five and 16 to learn computational thinking as part of the computing curriculum, but many say this has not been as effective as hoped, pointing to an unimaginative syllabus and poorly equipped staff.
Consensus is growing that what the IT sector needs is nothing less than a make-over, a marketing campaign portraying a career in tech as something that is fun and inclusive, emphasising soft skills — creativity, analytical thinking, problem-solving, multitasking, verbal and written communications — to attract people who can then be trained in the technical aspects of the role. Especially for girls, who often view tech as a male-dominated and uninteresting sector, showcasing those who have taken an alternative route into technology would provide encouragement and inspiration.
As a young, black, female working in a male-dominated, highly-lucrative and rapidly-changing sector, Esther can anticipate yet more career changes. She’d make an ideal STEAM ambassador; a super role model.