Jan 14 2020

Prepare Your IT Department for an AI Skills Gap

Tap peer-to-peer learning and other resources to prepare your team for the expansion of artificial intelligence applications.

In higher education, we’re already past the point at which artificial intelligence has gone from a theoretical development to a technology alive and well on campuses. As I’ve written before, institutions have put AI to work in lots of ways that save time and money. At George Washington University, chatbots provide 24/7 support to the IT help desk. Other colleges use AI systems to support faculty by answering routine student questions.

Given that colleges have traditionally been viewed as slow to adapt, it’s exciting to see a widespread embrace of this emerging technology.

Yet in higher education, as in other industries, IT leaders are likely to encounter a gap between what’s possible in AI and who can execute it — soon, if they haven’t already.

Cloud computing created a similar need for new skills. Even though most institutions have embraced the cloud, they’ve still had to work to facilitate the transition in terms of both employees and workflow. As we know, the cloud skills gap is a challenge for IT leaders. A similar transition is on the horizon for AI.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how colleges are making strides to close the cloud skills gap.

In mid-2018, which seems like a relatively long time ago in terms of the speed of tech, Forbes ran an article with the headline “The AI Skills Crisis and How to Close the Gap.” If we had a crisis on our hands back then, what are we facing now, when AI is even more ubiquitous?

LinkedIn’s "2020 Emerging Jobs Report” notes that jobs related to AI and data science are expanding across industries. In fact, the report names AI specialist as the top job in the U.S., with a 74 percent annual growth rate. LinkedIn predicts a widespread effect: “Artificial intelligence will require the entire workforce to learn new skills, whether it’s to keep up to date with an existing role, or pursuing a new career as a result of automation.”

Colleges face an extra challenge that businesses don’t, and that’s the inability to match the lucrative salaries of the corporate world. Still, there are ways to augment the proficiency of existing staff.

Create Ongoing Opportunities for Staff to Learn from Peers

One strategy is to give your team peer-to-peer training (with an “early and often” mentality). Campus leaders have used this approach to great success with cloud skills, and it makes sense for professionals who work on, or aspire to work on, AI. Regularly bring together employees who work with AI (and those who are simply interested in expanding their knowledge) to learn about developments, share experiences and trade tips.

This is especially important on campuses, where AI applications are incredibly diverse. Individuals using AI or partnering with vendors that provide AI resources may include IT network and cybersecurity specialists, faculty in academic departments, admissions staff and researchers. It would be very easy for these individuals to continue working in silos and miss out on the benefits of collaboration.

Partnering with peer institutions, and even with AI professionals in industries outside higher education, can also be fruitful. It’s not too much of a stretch to say we’re all crossing new ground when it comes to AI. Learning from each other can save time and headaches and shorten the adoption curve considerably.

Closing the skills gap means starting now to prepare your team for the jobs they’ll do in the future. Giving them exposure to more advanced AI applications and building a broad understanding of this technology can give them a foundation of expertise on which to build. The applications underway in one industry today, for example, just might be the use case that shows up on campus next year.

Set a Foundation for AI Expertise and Build from There

Designating an IT lead for AI is also smart: Choose one person whose job it is to see the big picture of what’s happening with AI on campus, who can bring the right stakeholders together, serve as a hub of resources and information, and help IT leaders be alert to potential opportunities and challenges as AI applications continue to expand.

Finally, a growing number of institutions are offering microcredentials and certifications. Consider opportunities on your campus (and others) to provide formal training through academic programs, conferences and events. When staffers attend such programs, have them share what they learn with other staffers. Ultimately, it’s an investment in the future strength of your IT department.

Bridging the AI skills gap, and developing a pipeline of future professionals, will certainly take time. It’s likely to be a complex journey in ways that are hard for us to foresee. At AI Business, one writer says that integrating AI into the workplace will require no less than “upskilling, diversity and rethinking the nature of work itself.” Set your team members up for success by helping them get as ready as possible.

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