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Former BBC Dragons’ Den Investor Warns UK PLC ‘Sleepwalking’ into Major AI Skills Crisis

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Former star of BBC Show Dragons’ Den, James Caan CBE, is calling for urgent action to tackle a major AI and analytics skills crisis that’s already stifling productivity and innovation across the UK and Ireland.

The calls follow new research published by SAS, following a survey of decision-makers from major firms in the UK & Ireland, with an average of 27,000 employees.

Forty-four per cent of the firms surveyed plan to invest in artificial intelligence technology, but 63 per cent said their staff did not have the AI skills necessary and 61 per cent did not have enough staff to deliver the benefits of AI. Compounding this problem, 53 per cent of respondents were unsure what AI qualifications and skills were needed.

Twenty-one per cent of firms said the pandemic had worsened the shortage of skilled staff versus just 8 per cent stating staffing levels were better post pandemic.

Nearly 9 in 10 business leaders (88 per cent) say too few staff is preventing them from meeting customer demands, while also impacting morale among the workforce according to 75 per cent. Overworked and demotivated staff compounds the problem of skilled staff retention.

James Caan, CBE, said:

“We need a fundamental rethink when it comes to recruitment and training to urgently reskill and upskill the existing workforce with data and AI skills. This research by SAS  found that 63 per cent of businesses admit their staff do not have the AI skills necessary; while 88% said too few trained staff is preventing them from meeting customer demands.

“Many organisations plan to invest in AI or have done already, but they won’t be able to maximise return from this tech without sufficient in-house expertise. If we are to retrain individuals at the scale required, it’s not just workers and jobseekers that need to pivot but employers and employees too. We really need to act now!

“We must rid ourselves of misconceptions about older workers not being able to acquire the digital skills that the UK economy desperately needs. The SAS STEP programme is one way to increase the supply of people with these skills. It also enables jobseekers to acquire these skills free of charge – from basic data literacy (required for most jobs in today’s digital world) up to more advanced data science and AI skills.”

The numbers from the SAS survey back up UK Government figures , that showed that there were 215,000 vacancies for ‘hard data skills’ that need to be filled. Yet this is unlikely to be met by graduates – for example, there are only 10,000 potential graduates in ‘data science’ each year. In addition, the UK tops the list among countries in Europe for investment in AI firms and projects . However, value from this significant investment will not be realised if there are not the skills available to deliver on it.

Glyn Townsend, Senior Director of Education Services at SAS for Europe, Middle East and Africa, says the report’s findings are a major concern for UK productivity and innovation and that businesses need to act now before things get worse: “Record employment, soaring inflation, the productivity conundrum and a permanent shift in consumer behaviour and expectations due to the pandemic, means demand for data science talent has never been higher. It will have wider repercussions for the economy, especially in the UK where there has been a tendency to outsource the need for analytics and AI skills to Asia Pacific and Latin America, compounding the problem in the global race for these skills.

“Therefore we recommend that organisations take the following actions to solve the crisis.

“Consolidate diverse AI and analytics tools around modern, open, multi-language tools which will increase data science productivity 50 per cent and empower end users to do basic analytics tasks, allowing data scientists to focus on core tasks.

“Grow the UK and Ireland data science talent pool by reskilling existing staff and creating more university data science graduates. Encourage a diverse range of certifications including training courses from software tools vendors. And create attractive data science employee networks, career structures and employment benefits.”

Dr Sally Eaves, AI expert, author and speaker, who contributed to the How To Solve The Data Science Skills Shortage report, said:

“Businesses cannot rely solely on graduates or continue the poaching merry-go-round. The good news is employers have already begun to recognise the value of on-the-job training and other certifications as stated in the report.

“There is no single approach – but a combination of expanding mid-career training including to those currently in non-technology roles, equipping people with the right tools for the job and growing the data science community will start to see that skills gap narrow. Together, they could significantly increase the supply of talent, and create good quality satisfying jobs that benefit individuals, organisations and the wider economy.

“Complementing this must be a broadened focus on STEAM [STEM plus the Arts] learning approaches which place an equal value on skills such as emotional intelligence, empathy, curiosity, problem solving and communication. These help give people enhanced agility to change both depth and diversity of experience and thinking. Today we need both the creative confidence to (re)imagine the future and the data science and technology skills to help actualise it.

“Building data science capabilities doesn’t happen overnight but with the right learning pathways, and investment in modern analytics tools, it’s getting easier to upskill and reskill people, from both a tech and non-tech background. This can help build a pipeline of talent that’s going to be so vital to the UK and Ireland.”