AI experts are in short supply. That's making the skills crisis worse

Skills shortages are causing businesses to fall behind in their adoption of cutting-edge technology.
Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor
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Image: Maskot/Getty

IBM is cconcered about the slow progress being made in some countries' adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which could prevent them from solving some of society's toughest challenges.

A study by IBM concluded that the UK is falling behind its European neighbours in AI adoption, with employers blaming a lack of skills in areas like software engineering, problem solving, and knowledge of programming languages.

A survey of 7,500 business leaders by IBM found that about a third of UK respondents said their company had accelerated their rollout of AI during the past two years, compared with a European average of 49%.

If UK businesses aren't able to speed up their adoption of AI-like technologies, such as machine learning and automation, companies will find it difficult to achieve their ambitious goals for sustainability, IBM warned.

In a somewhat Inception-style twist, the lack of AI-ready skills also means businesses can't harness AI tech to solve the shortage of labour and skills they are already facing.

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Just over 40% of UK companies surveyed by IBM said they plan to use AI to retrain their workforce – the second-highest priority for AI investment after research & development – while 59% plan to use automation tools to reduce manual or repetitive tasks.

The findings come as the UK government pursues its National AI Strategy, launched in September 2021, which aims to nurture the country's AI ecosystem and transition to an AI-enabled economy. The UK is ranked third globally for private investment into AI companies and is home to a third of Europe's total AI businesses.

Yet more than a third (36%) of UK companies surveyed have stalled their AI investments since 2020, versus 27% across Europe. Presumably, the COVID-19 pandemic played a part here, with businesses having to divert resources away from more ambitious projects to focus on essential, day-to-day operations.

But these projects could be critical in enabling UK companies to pursue their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals in the face of a growing climate emergency.

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More than half (58%) of UK companies surveyed are either "executing" (31%) or "planning to apply" AI (27%) to help meet their ESG targets, while 44% are either planning to invest in AI to address their sustainability goals (30%) or say that investing in AI for sustainability is among their top tech priorities for the next one to two years (14%). 

The success of this approach falls on businesses being able to source and hire the skills they need to get more ambitious projects moving. "Talent can be found everywhere, but training opportunities unfortunately cannot," Ebru Binboga, director of data, AI and automation, IBM UK & Ireland, told ZDNet, who added that a lack of relevant training opportunities to people of all ages is a key factor causing the shortage of tech skills seen not just in the UK, but globally.

To get more technically skilled people into the workforce, the public and private sectors need to collaborate on providing education and training that keeps pace with market demands, demographic changes, and technological progress, said Binboga.

"As most businesses are still at a very early stage of adopting AI, there will continue to be a huge demand for the skills that are needed to fully integrate AI into an organization – from building a modern data platform to developing sophisticated AI models," Binboga said.

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