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Rising Demand for Workforce AI Skills Leads to Calls for Upskilling

As artificial intelligence technology continues to develop, the demand for workers with the ability to work alongside and manage AI systems will increase.

In the coming years, the global workforce will require millions of workers with technical skills in data analysis, AI and machine learning. This means that workers who are not able to adapt and learn these new skills will be left behind in the job market.

“It is fair to expect that the broadening capability and scope of AI applications is leading us to a future where AI will be a component of nearly every job,” said William Scherlis, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Workforce education and training that is focused on AI, both within the public and private sectors, is vital to the continued competitiveness and prosperity of our nation.”

Scherlis added that the creation of an AI-ready workforce will require policies and partnerships that can advance a spectrum of AI skills including general AI fluency, as well as specialized skills related to engineering, testing and evaluation.

“It is important for there to be an informed working awareness of AI capabilities at executive, leadership, managerial and supervisory levels,” he said.

AI must be a top priority for workforce upskilling, said Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., who has introduced legislation that would require federal managers to be trained on this emerging technology. Mace is chair of the House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology, and Government Innovation.

“The U.S. is indisputably the leader in artificial intelligence,” Mace said. “But we can’t take that lead for granted. We are now entering a stage of widespread adoption, and AI technologies will be integrated broadly into the economy. This transition will test our STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] training pipeline.”

She brought up the nation’s shortage of 700,000 cybersecurity professionals as an example of how the traditional education system does not produce enough degreed graduates to fill the demand for critical skills. “The shortfall would be much worse if not for nimble alternatives to traditional education, like short-term boot camp programs that offer credentials and certifications,” Mace said.     

Timi Hadra, a partner at IBM Consulting and the company’s senior state executive for West Virginia, said it was largely because of the cybersecurity skills gap that “IBM embarked on a skills-first journey, creating opportunities for well-paid jobs for those without college degrees.”

More than half of IBM’s U.S. job postings no longer require a college degree, she said. In 2017, IBM launched registered apprenticeship programs for technology jobs that now cover 35 roles, including in the fields of cybersecurity and data science.

“IBM’s apprenticeship programs hire Americans without college degrees and teach them the skills and provide the certifications for a number of in-demand tech roles,” Hadra said. “We have hired over 1,000 apprentices since we launched the programs and have helped hundreds of others land good-paying tech jobs.”

[From the SHRM Foundation: Skilled Credentials at Work]

She added that skills must be at the center of people strategy. “For instance, IBM requires employees to complete at least 40 hours of learning annually and provides the tools for learning,” Hadra said. “To incentivize and encourage skills building, especially in our high-demand skills areas like AI, we publish suggested career pathways for IBMers that identify key skills, habits and outcomes to progress to the next level in their careers.”

IBM is also reskilling and upskilling employees in functions like human resources as their jobs are changed by AI. “A notable result of reskilling our HR employees is that 70 percent of the ideas for new applications of AI in that function come from those employees. When we started, almost all applications were driven top-down by executive leadership.”

Hadra provided a few recommendations for building an AI-ready workforce:

  • Foster a culture of upskilling and lifelong learning, including a system to reward and incentivize employees to attain in-demand AI skills. “IBM reinforces our learning culture by including learning outcomes as one of two key measures in employees’ annual performance reviews to determine salary increases,” she said.
  • Support skills-first hiring across sectors—and specifically for federal contractors. Hadra explained that federal contractors are rarely able to place someone without a four-year degree on a technology services contract, regardless of their qualifications. “Federal agencies tend to require educational degrees despite the reality that many roles can be staffed by individuals without degrees when they have the right skills and experience,” she said.
  • Expand federal financing for short-term training programs for working adults who aspire to careers requiring technology skills. “We encourage Congress to allow federal Pell Grants for short-term and job-aligned skilling programs and to increase training grants under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act,” Hadra said.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee recently passed the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act, which would allow workers to access quality, short-term training programs.


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