Thursday, 19th September 2019

Bridge the IT skills gap

Artificial intelligence (AI) hasn’t always had favourable representation in pop culture. In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), homicidal supercomputer Hal demonstrated how AI could surpass the intelligence of a human — and for humans, the results weren’t so great. In reality, AI threatens our jobs more than our lives. Here, Graham Smith, head of marketing at Microsoft recruitment partner Curo Talent, explains why IT workers needn’t worry about the AI takeover.

Since the introduction of robots to automotive production lines in the 1960s, the threat that automation poses to manual jobs has been widely understood. However, the machine economy now comprises of much more than mechanical muscle. Advances in artificial intelligence and automated software are now threatening more functional and intelligence-driven roles, including those in IT.

Estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of jobs in the IT sector could be at risk as a result of automation. But wait, you thought this was supposed to be a positive spin on the impending robot takeover? Hang on, let me explain.

Britain is experiencing a severe skills shortage in the IT sector. According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 43 per cent of vacancies in these sectors are difficult to fill. Perhaps ironically, the IT skills gap has been caused by the overwhelming success of the UK technology sector. Yet, this success isn’t enough to entice young people to take up a career in IT.

That’s where AI steps in.

One of the criticisms of the IT industry is that the sector isn’t attractive to young people. According to a Mondelez International survey of more than 1,500 teenagers, 44 per cent believed that science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects were uninteresting. What’s more, almost half of the participants considered STEM subjects as less enjoyable than other subject areas. However, AI could take on the so-called boring aspects of jobs in these industries.

Physical automation is often implemented to take on the menial and repetitive jobs humans don’t want to do — think industrial robots for bin-picking and box opening operations in manufacturing plants. For the IT industry, the scenario could be similar.

We aren’t suggesting that all IT vacancies are filled with AI-powered computers. That wouldn’t solve the problem. However, by implementing automation to take on more functional IT tasks, like data entry, basic programming and data migration, the sector could become a much more attractive career path for young people.

Automation-sceptics will argue that this grunt work could easily be done by humans, but this comes at a higher cost in man-hours, decreased job satisfaction for employees and with a greater margin for error. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist (or a computer scientist) to recognise that a disinterested employee is more likely to make mistakes.

According to IBM’s Cyber Security Intelligence Index, over 90 per cent of cyber security incidents are down to human error — clicking bad links, opening unsafe attachments and failing to keep passwords secure. Unlike us troublesome humans, AI can automatically identify phishing websites, malware attachments and encrypt files to reduce the number of cyber security incidents.

One of the biggest arguments against AI is that the technology will replace human employees entirely, leaving Britain’s IT workers without any opportunities.But, we know that’s not true. There’s no denying that some lower-value IT jobs are at risk of being automated. But, ironically, many computer-related jobs are among the least threatened by these AI-charged machines.

The more our economy relies on automation, the more we’ll need talented IT workers that can implement and manage this technology — not just for the computing world, but for other industries including manufacturing, warehousing, retail and energy. As an example, a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the number of computer analysts required will jump by 21 per cent before 2024.

That being said, before we can pave paths for exciting new roles for Britain’s future IT workers, we need to bridge the current skills gap with automated technology. Britain’s digital sector is booming, and as a result, it is creating jobs at twice the rate of other industries. Take the first quarter of 2017 as an example, 12 per cent of all British job postings were for technology positions.

By filling some of these functional, low-value roles with automated technology, Britain’s existing IT workers can battle for the prestigious positions that require real human aptitudes like creativity, judgement and imagination.

Britain is already regarded as the digital capital of Europe, turning over an impressive £170 billion in 2016. The nation is also a hub for investment, receiving over 50 per cent more investment than any other European country. By addressing the skills shortage with greater investment in automation, things could get very exciting for Britain’s IT sector.

Kubrick’s dystopian vision of AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey may not have been entirely accurate. AI doesn’t pose a threat to our lives; nor will it have an outwardly negative impact on the job opportunities in the IT sector.

The introduction of AI could help to bridge the IT industry’s widening skills gap enabling employees to work collaboratively with their AI-counterparts — completing valuable tasks, while automation manages the boring bits.

Just, don’t work alongside Hal. We hear he’s not that co-operative.

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