The AI Skills Gap Is Hurting Britain

The UK Government has not been discreet about its ambitions of becoming an artificial intelligence (AI) superpower, leading the way when it comes to developments at the forefront of AI across the globe. 

Flashback to the last quarter of 2021, when the world was exiting a global pandemic, the UK government announced its National AI strategy, a 10-year plan to enable the UK to position itself as a global leader within AI.

Since then, we have seen several strides being taken, from taking a pro-innovation approach to AI in August 2023 to hosting a global AI Safety Summit in November 2023.

But the UK - or any other nation - cannot be a sprinter in the AI race if it cannot attract the right skills to make it happen.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on digital transformation published early last year warned the “existing skills gap is getting worse” with the public sector lagging behind the private sector. 

Though the government has recognised it has an evident skills gap, with its recently announced new business guidance for upskilling workers with the tools they need for jobs alongside AI, the public sector skills gap must also be prioritised.

Addressing The AI Skills Shortage

The NAO report states skilled digital professionals command a premium in the market – along with the spike in the demand for the people with AI skills – it’s clear the recruitment challenge has become even more acute.

Coupled with the fact that only 4% of civil servants are digital professionals, compared with an industry average of between 8% and 12% – the situation is made worse because there is already a major digital skills shortage in the UK.

It’s clear that education will be key. Research commissioned by Amazon from Capital Economics found jobs requiring computer science, AI, or machine learning skills are expected to increase by 40% in the next five years. What’s more, computer science and AI related roles could contribute £71 billion a year to the UK economy. Recognising the urgency of the situation, last year the digital giant unveiled a schools-based programme, designed to inspire young people about the potential of AI.

While such schemes are to be applauded, they are a long-term solution that will not drive results overnight. So how does the public sector address the skills market in the short-term?

One idea would be for the government to tap into resources held by the private sector to recruit the necessary skills.

Looking To The Private Sector & Beyond For Recruits

It was a point made by Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin during the summer in a speech to the Policy Exchange think tank. He said the Government planned to create a “pathway for them [private sector AI specialists] to join the civil service” via secondment programmes.

When pressed on the issue of disparity in pay between the public and private sectors, he suggested more lucrative remuneration packages could be offered. But he also suggested some people may want to be part of the government’s ambitious plans out of a sense of duty. And he may have a point.

In fact, I would go further. If the government is considering parachuting in AI experts from private companies, it must also consider attracting them from abroad as well.

After all, not everyone wants to work for a big tech company. In some global regions, the public sector has a much better reputation than the private sector.

Increasing Diversity Is Key

And it goes without saying that increasing diversity in tech could benefit the sector. Take cybersecurity as one example. It’s important to remember that humanity as a whole is diverse, and cybersecurity is complex. Whether it be Network Security, Application Security or Cloud Security, we need as many perspectives and abilities as possible to ensure a diverse approach that will enhance the overall defence mechanisms of the industry.
We know, for example, that attracting women into the sector has been a major issue, but the same challenge applies to other minority groups too. The more we train people from different backgrounds and different countries, the better the understanding we’ll have for future cybersecurity attacks. Diversity is vital for the future of our technology to succeed, and it will be key for the public sector to close that gap. 

The Public Sector Must Adapt To Change

Of course, not every new role in the world of AI will be a tech job. Not everyone needs to be a programmer. However, understandably, I would expect those looking to join the sector to have some basic knowledge of coding to give them a better understanding of how AI works.

Perhaps the biggest skill we need, though, is the ability to adapt. After all, there’s little doubt that AI will fundamentally impact the workplace.

And that means we will all eventually have to embrace the AI’s presence going forward - regardless of our jobs - as technology continues to play an ever-vital lead role in our lives.

As the UK looks to become an AI superpower, the skills gap in the public sector needs to be addressed, with new incentives and benefits attached. The new government guidance announced should ensure that those in the public sector are well equipped for the future. After all, without upskilling and using AI, the public sector will ultimately be left behind.

Sascha Giese is Tech Evangelist at  SolarWinds

Image: abdoudz

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