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To 'build back better', we need to plug the AI skills shortage

Javier Arroyo
November 25, 2021

Vladimir Putin famously asserted that the "nation that leads in AI will be the ruler of the world." He's right, and with AI transforming the world around us, we need to ensure we develop the skills needed for this technological revolution, argues Javier Arroyo.

There is an emerging global skills gap crisis when it comes to employees who understand and are able to use the technology. Among those jobs most sought are developers and engineers, researchers and data scientists, says accountancy firm Deloitte. That is borne out by a recent Microsoft study, which found that 35 per cent of business leaders believe there will be an AI skills shortage in the next two years.

Worse still, 28 per cent reckon we're already experiencing that shortage. While 93 per cent of US and UK organisations list AI as a business priority and have projects already planned or in production, more than half (51 per cent) admit they don't have the right mix of skilled AI talent in-house to bring these strategies to life, according to The AI Skills Gap. The demand isn't just coming from IT departments either, but across the board in marketing, sales, customer service, finance, and research and development, according to advisory firm Gartner.

In the US, the fields of IT, engineering, and maths have the most job openings, yet those jobs that require coding skills stay open for the longest. There would be more people to fill these jobs if there were more computer graduates, and more computer graduates if you could get a head start in school with effective maths classes.

This points to the fact that there's a massive disconnect between the maths that is taught in today's classroom and the skills that are needed in tomorrow's workforce.

Take computer programming and coding, for example. The UK government introduced it as part of the National Curriculum in 2014, becoming the first country in the world to mandate coding as a subject in primary and secondary schools. This shows good intent. However, it's being taught in completely the wrong way.

Rather than teaching students how to code in a specific language which is likely to become redundant in a couple of years, they need to learn the underlying skills behind coding and the techniques needed to tackle complex problems, some of which has traditionally only been taught at university.

Take Estonia as an example. Since 2014 all Estonians have had a lifelong learning strategy that involves the use of digital tools in schools, which prioritise computational thinking along with coding. It should come as no surprise then that Estonia has the highest unicorn-per-capita rate in the world.

Across the Western world, maths simply hasn't kept pace with the latest advances in technology and addressing the problems of the real world. Many have memories of answering stale, abstract questions that ask, "how many apples Susan will have left", kids need to know how computers think, and therefore how to give them instructions.

Instead, they need to be equipped with the ability to break complex problems down into simpler ones, and how to notice patterns in data and code. There's no point in teaching complex and obsolete concepts such as long division when everyone has a calculator in their pockets. And, at the moment, the teachers delivering the current curriculum don't have the right knowledge to bridge that ever-widening chasm in skills.

Practical applications could include finding key trends in government statistics, designing a traffic system or even cracking codes. That's where a combination of newly upskilled and retrained teachers (empowered by digital learning tools) and AI technology platforms must be used to deliver these skills and provide students with the tools required for this ever-changing digitally-powered world, and enable them to face these challenges head-on. After all, we have all this technology at our disposal, so why not use it to full effect?

Pupils need to be put into real-life scenarios where this technology is being deployed so they can learn how to use it. And what better place than the classroom to try it out in first?

Remote learning has driven technological advancements over the last 18 months, enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue to shape the future of tomorrow's workforce. That capability needs to be fully harnessed to enable children to continue to learn outside the classroom and apply the technology as they transition into the world of work. Online resources can help in this respect, delivering tutorials tailored to an individual student's needs and ability that they can work through at their own pace.

The jobs of tomorrow haven't been created yet, but we know what skills they'll likely require. So it is not so important what we tell our children to think, but rather, how to think. And in the future, we'll need to think more like computers.

Javier Arroyo is the Co-founder of Smartick AI-based maths program for children, and a graduate of Harvard Business School's Executive Program.
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