New blitz to combat £2bn data science skills shortage

data science 1The UK Government has joined forces with the Office for Students, universities and business to create a £24m fund for a raft of conversion courses to tackle the damaging skills shortage in artificial intelligence and data science roles, with scholarships to support applications from diverse backgrounds.

The cash will provide places for graduates to enrol on dedicated post-graduate degree courses starting in autumn 2020. Funding has been awarded to 18 universities, who are working with partner providers to deliver courses in 28 universities and colleges across England.

Students from a range of backgrounds – both those who have a degree in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) or social sciences, and those who have studied other subjects to date – are being encouraged to apply.

The move is designed to develop the UK’s skills base. Despite strong levels of AI uptake, it has long been reported that organisations are being held back by significant barriers. In one recent survey by SnapLogic, 73% of UK firms said they lacked the talent to complete AI and data science initiatives, while by the Government’s own admission the skills shortage is costing businesses more than £2bn a year.

With this in mind, applicants for the courses could include people returning to work after a career break and looking to retrain in a new profession, and other under-represented groups in the AI and digital workforce. Some 2,500 places will be available, with 1,000 scholarships specifically targeting the female, black and disabled demographics.

Statistics from a recent Tech Nation and Royal Society report, reveal women make up only 19% of the tech workforce and people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background represent just 4% of the UK tech industry.

Successful students will have flexible access to study and course content so they can fit their studies around their daily lives. Students will also undertake paid work placements to help maximise their employment opportunities at the end of their course, with roles such as machine learning engineers, data scientists, research scientists or AI architects.

The announcement is part of the Government’s commitment to increase research and development investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “It is vital we increase diversity across our tech sector and give everyone with the aptitude and talent the opportunity to build a successful career.

“This will help make sure AI developed in the UK reflects the needs and make-up of society as a whole which will also help mitigate the risk of biased technologies being developed. Through these new conversion courses we are working with industry and academia to develop and maintain the best AI workforce in the world.”

UKBlackTech co-founder Mark Martin added: “The new AI and data science courses and scholarships will help boost uptake of these technologies across the country and prepare the next generation to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic and social injustices.

“It’s important we encourage more homegrown talent from different backgrounds to access these opportunities so we can develop better tech tools, services and organisations that truly reflects our nation.”

The Government has previously announced it is supporting industry-funded AI Masters, Alan Turing Institute AI research fellowships and 16 dedicated Centres at universities across the country to train 1,000 extra AI PhDs.

To boost the use of AI in the public sector, the World Economic Forum has published new guidelines to help the public sector embrace the technology to help drive efficiencies and prepare for future risks.

The guidance is designed to help established companies, start-ups and new entrants to the AI sector compete on a level playing field for government contracts and drive adoption of ethical practices by tech companies.

Office for Students director for fair access and participation Chris Millward concluded: “In recent years we have seen significant and increasing demand for digital skills in a range of fields. From healthcare and biosciences, to industry and transport – harnessing AI and data science will be crucial in tackling significant global challenges for years to come.

“It is also critical that graduates from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to gain the skills that employers need. With new AI and data science conversion courses across the country, and scholarships available to students from underrepresented backgrounds, this programme will both help tackle skills gaps and increase choice and opportunities for all students.”

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