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New schools seek to bring AI, programming literacy to fill the talent gap

Commentary: There’s never been a greater need for AI skills, as well as general programming talent, but traditional education options aren’t keeping up.

Book and computer technology in library

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Even as demand booms for talent in hot technologies, companies struggle to find qualified applicants. This is true for artificial intelligence jobs. Currently, private education companies are filling the gap left by the surging demand for AI engineers. Whether it’s Python roles or machine learning experts, the rolling digitization of the global economy has created a near endless need for AI talent that traditional schools have failed to meet.

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Silicon-Valley based Holberton, for example, started as a sort of software engineering boot camp, expanded by franchising to nine countries and, based on their success, has segued into creating what it calls an operating system for education; that is, a set of tools that enable other private programs to quickly create machine learning courses or curricula on their own.

“Traditional schools are slower to react to the market and are constrained by overtaxed faculty,” said Julien Barbier, cofounder of Holberton, which is focused on broadening technical education to meet the surging demand. 

SEE: Online education toolbox: Tips and resources for distance learning (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

More engineers, please

The AI talent shortage isn’t merely a matter of AI engineers, either. Software developers were the workers in highest demand in 2020, according to LinkedIn data, and Microsoft estimates that the next five years will see the creation of around 149 million new technology-oriented jobs with most roles in software development. 

That’s a lot of new jobs (hurray!), without a clear path to qualifying people for them (boo!). Historically, we could have looked to traditional schools to deliver qualified candidates, but they’ve fallen behind. According to Computer Science Education Week, which is an annual call to action to inspire K-12 students to learn computer science, CS does not even count toward high school graduation in 35 out of 50 U.S. states, though 58% of all new STEM jobs are in computing. In addition, schools are struggling to find qualified teachers who want to teach instead of earning $200,000 a year or more as developers.

This is why a new crop of schools is rising.

SEE: ‘We need to gather as much data as we can’: How AI could change everything about education (TechRepublic)

“There’s clearly a huge demand and we provide talented and highly trained developers,” said Sophie Viger, general director of School 42. She said all of 42’s students are hired within two years after starting at the school. “Everybody can be part of this technological future,” she added. “Access to a bigger and more diverse pool of talent will also benefit companies enormously.”  

AI’s emergence has resulted in an unprecedented brain drain of AI professors from academia to industry. More than 40 computer science academics left for high-paying private-sector jobs in 2018 compared to 15 in 2012 and none in 2004, according to Stanford University’s Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute.

The tech talent gap threatens to slow the digital transformation of the global economy. More software needs to be written in the next 10 years than there are people to write it. Management consulting firm Korn Ferry predicts a global shortage of 4.3 million tech, media and telecommunications workers by 2030. In fact, as far back as 2017, Gartner predicted app development demand would outstrip IT’s capacity to deliver it through 2021, as highlighted by Daniel Kroening in The Wall Street Journal.

Students are trying new options

The pandemic has highlighted the range of options available, and there has been a surge in alternative programs as students reassess the traditional college experience. Competency-based learning is increasingly popular and a recent ECMC Group survey of 2,200 teenagers revealed that half of them were open to alternatives to the traditional four-year degree. Not only does this allow learners to progress at their own chosen pace and accumulate credits from different institutions as they pursue lifelong learning, but short-term, project-based certificate programs are often valued more highly by many employers than a four-year degree.

Holberton offers franchisees and licensees a menu of tools built around a collaborative project-based methodology, presenting students with a series of projects that they are encouraged to work through communally. Teaching materials are curated from open source readings and videos. Many organizations that use Holberton’s OS of education don’t even have teachers and instead rely on mentors to offer advice when students get stuck.

The system draws on expert advisors and former students to tailor curricula that fit industry demand. Holberton has recently expanded its machine learning team to meet the yawning talent gap as the global economy adopts artificial intelligence.

The team-based project-approach is well suited to teaching students professional skills. Increasingly, employers are dropping the requirement of a college degree and are looking at student portfolios instead. This can make sense, given that skills learned in college can rapidly become obsolete. Even the U.S. government now gives priority to a job applicant’s skills over a college degree.

SEE: Low-code and no-code won’t kill developer jobs, here’s why (TechRepublic)

Michaela Martin, program leader at the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, argued that half of students have lost confidence in the value of a college education and are worried about developing the skills and knowledge they need to get a job after graduating.

In addition to organizations like Holberton, there are many other initiatives underway to pave new paths to computer literacy. For example, Zurich Insurance is introducing apprenticeship programs to enable education and work experience. Online-only learning platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, edX and Udemy are also making efforts to fill the gap, offering a range of courses including data science, ML and AI, and third-party providers like NetCom Learning provide bespoke training and certification for tech industry leaders.

The call to action occasioned by the pandemic has the potential for a lasting revolution in education. But the challenges facing traditional providers are amplified by the agility of private providers, who can adapt more quickly to changing conditions and offer a wider range of specialist, short-term and flexible options that are responsive to industry needs. All of which could combine to give students new ways to learn, and employers new ways to find and train qualified employees.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the views expressed herein are mine.

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