Artificial intelligence has featured prominently in the news of late: the good news and the bad.
On the one hand it has been branded an existential threat to humanity akin to nuclear weapons in the 1980s, remarked by an international group of doctors and public health experts. On the other hand, Artificial intelligence (AI) is being rapidly adopted by some of the world's, and Australia's, largest organisations that see it as extremely beneficial. When the CEOs of three of Australia's top four banks take time out to visit Seattle for a Microsoft AI conference, they are clearly taking it seriously.
Whatever Australian organisations plan to do with AI, they will not be able to realise their goals without people skilled in how to manage and use it. According to the World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2023, AI and machine learning specialists represent the fastest growing role over the next few years, with a predicted 40 percent jump in the number of jobs by 2027.
Not only will there be many opportunities for people with AI skills, but the demand for many other roles will also decline sharply, so there is likely to be strong demand for AI training as people seek to reskill when their existing skills become redundant.
According to the CSIRO and Deloitte Access Economics, Australia will need up to 161,000 new specialist AI workers by 2030, with a range of skills in machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing and other AI technologies.
National AI strategy called for: but does it miss the point?
In late September 2022, a group of Australia's leading AI professors met in Canberra to discuss how to better coordinate and accelerate Australia's education effort so the nation can achieve maximum benefit from the AI revolution. To formalise their initiative they formed the Kingston AI Group.
In February 2023, the group issued a statement saying that failure to fill AI roles could compromise Australia's ability to sustain a complex, prosperous economy and maintain sovereign control over key industry sectors and its democracy.
Most important, according to the group, was the need for Australia's universities to produce a critical mass of AI experts at both graduate and postgraduate (levels), because it was such experts that Australia would primarily rely on in the future.
However, universities' track record in meeting Australia's need for IT skills suggests this may not be the best source of AI expertise.
A recent survey from the Australian Information Industry Association found Australian ICT graduates were not meeting industry standards, with many needing significant additional on-the-job training to be effective employees. The survey asked representatives from over 100 companies operating in Australia – most of which were small and medium businesses – their thoughts on the current state of ICT training and the industry more broadly. A meagre five percent of respondents assessed graduates as being job ready.
And quite frankly, the results make sense. University courses last for at least three years – a long time in a fast-developing field like AI. Add to that the time taken for curriculum change to reflect developments in the real world and incorporate these, and it becomes very difficult for any university course to produce graduates with the current knowledge to be immediately effective in such a fast-moving and competitive field as AI.
Short courses are the key to boosting AI skills efficiently
Shorter courses present a compelling alternative to university degrees to meet the AI skills shortage. They get students job-ready much faster, and their curriculums are developed using vendor-certified content based on current technology developments, so the skills students graduate with are highly relevant.
Furthermore, short courses encourage those seeking a career change to take the plunge. It is far easier to make a six-month commitment to a new career than a four-year commitment. And arguably, those are the people that businesses want most - people with real-world experience who can use their transferable skills from prior roles to add value to their new position, as opposed to fresh graduates who haven't developed their soft skills, which are critically important in the age of remote work (and increasingly valuable to employers over the last few years).
There is scope for governments — federal and state — to take the initiative to build Australia's AI skills base by supporting such courses and helping workers make the transition. The Victorian Government's $34 million Digital Jobs program provides a good model for all governments to follow.
It has two components. Victorians aged over 30 from any background or industry can apply for 12 weeks free training in an industry-backed course in one of a dozen digital disciplines, including AI. On completion, they are eligible for 12 weeks in a paid digital role with a Victorian business. To support these roles, businesses and organisations receive a $5,000 subsidy for each person they take on.
Similar AI-focused initiatives would likely deliver a substantial return. When Minister for Science and Industry Ed Husic launched the National AI Centre's Australia's AI Ecosystem Momentum report in March 2023 he cited a 2019 estimate from McKinsey that, if Australia seized the opportunities provided by AI, between $1 trillion - $4 trillion could be added to the economy over the next 15 years. That prediction will not be fulfilled without AI skills of sufficient quality and quantity.
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