A former star of BBC TV show Dragons’ Den is calling for urgent action to tackle a major artificial intelligence and analytics skills crisis.

James Caan CBE says a lack of AI skills are already stifling productivity and innovation across the UK and Ireland.

The calls follow new research published today by SAS as part of its How To Solve The Data Science Skills Shortage report, which surveyed decision-makers from major firms with an average of 27,000 employees.

While 44% of these companies plan to invest in AI technology, but 63% said their staff did not have the AI skills necessary and 61% did not have enough staff to deliver the benefits of AI. 

Compounding this problem, 53% of respondents were unsure what AI qualifications and skills were needed.

“We need a fundamental rethink when it comes to recruitment and training to urgently reskill and upskill the existing workforce with data and AI skills,” said Caan. 

“Many organisations plan to invest in AI or have done already, but they won’t be able to maximise return from this tech without sufficient in-house expertise. 

“If we are to retrain individuals at the scale required, it’s not just workers and jobseekers that need to pivot but employers and employees too. We really need to act now.

“We must rid ourselves of misconceptions about older workers not being able to acquire the digital skills that the UK economy desperately needs.”

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The SAS STEP programme is one way to increase the supply of people with these skills. It also enables jobseekers to acquire these skills free of charge – from basic data literacy required for most jobs in today’s digital world up to more advanced data science and AI skills.

The numbers from the SAS survey back up UK government figures that showed there were 215,000 vacancies for ‘hard data skills’ that need to be filled. 

This is unlikely to be met by graduates: for example, there are only 10,000 potential graduates in ‘data science’ each year. In addition, the UK tops the list among countries in Europe for investment in AI firms and projects. 

However, value from this significant investment will not be realised if there are not the skills available to deliver on it.

Dr Sally Eaves

Dr Sally Eaves (above), AI expert, author and speaker, who contributed to the How To Solve The Data Science Skills Shortage report, said: “Businesses cannot rely solely on graduates or continue the poaching merry-go-round. The good news is employers have already begun to recognise the value of on-the-job training and other certifications.  

“There is no single approach – but a combination of expanding mid-career training including to those currently in non-technology roles, equipping people with the right tools for the job and growing the data science community will start to see that skills gap narrow. 

“Together, they could significantly increase the supply of talent, and create good quality satisfying jobs that benefit individuals, organisations and the wider economy.

“Building data science capabilities doesn’t happen overnight but with the right learning pathways, and investment in modern analytics tools, it’s getting easier to upskill and reskill people, from both a tech and non-tech background. 

“This can help build a pipeline of talent that’s going to be so vital to the UK and Ireland.”

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