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How to deliver on the record-breaking AI investment in the UK

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The UK workforce may not be best equipped to leverage the record-breaking AI investment in the UK, according to Russell Poole, managing director of Equinix UK, but there are ways to improve our talent pool. 

News broke recently that AI companies in the UK secured a record-breaking $1 billion (£803.9m) of investment in the first six months of 2019. This figure surpassed the UK’s entire AI funding in 2018 and represents a six-fold increase since 2014. This major injection of capital makes the UK the third biggest market for AI investment, behind only the US and China. 

On first blush, these figures tell a success story for the UK – particularly welcome news given how Brexit uncertainty has stalled investment in many UK industries. And while a recent independent survey from Equinix stated that 49% of British IT leaders are undeterred by Brexit uncertainty, there is a gap widening in the human resources behind the AI investment boom, which threatens the UK’s chances of delivering on this investment. Compared to other leading countries, UK AI companies are predominantly start-ups and tend to have smaller workforces. 89% of the UK’s AI ecosystem is comprised of start-ups containing 50 or fewer employees, whereas 47% of China’s AI companies have a workforce of more than 50 employees. 

Without the right skills and people behind them, AI companies in the UK will struggle to deliver on the recent levels of investment and remain competitive on a global stage. To combat this, we must equip the future workforce with the necessary digital and STEM skills, if we are to secure our future as an AI leader in the digital economy.

Understanding the skills gap

The UK Careers and Employability Service predicts a need for more than half a million new workers within the most skilled digital occupations (including AI) before 2022. To meet this demand, the number of computer science graduates in the UK would need to increase ten-fold. Looking at STEM skills more broadly, STEM Learning’s 2018 report echoes this conclusion, finding a shortfall of over 173,400 STEM workers and an average of 10 unfilled roles per business. Worse still, over half (56%) expect the STEM skills shortage to get worse over the next decade. If the skills vacuum is not filled, it threatens to stifle the promises of AI investment.

The skills gap crisis has been recognised by the UK government, who recently announced ambitious plans to invest £300million to provide 1,000 PhD’s in AI at leading universities by 2025. This is a welcome and wise investment, but it must be accompanied with earlier interventions.

To close the skills gap, children must be encouraged and enthused to study STEM subjects at a much earlier stage. The root of this growing skills gap is education, from school through to university and workplace training. In 2019, fewer than 12,000 UK students sat a Computing A-Level, tracking far below the growing number of jobs being created in the technology sector. Students interested in digital skills can also take an ICT A-Level, however the volume of students taking the ICT A-Level has dropped so much in the last few years that exam boards are now preparing to scrap the offering altogether. Looking at the GSCE level, the British Computer Society reports a concerning fall in the number students sitting the course. 

Higher the talent

Companies and governments must work together to make an active effort to introduce young people into the world of technology and computing, to demonstrate the relevance this sector has to their 

everyday lives, and to inspire a passion for STEM industries. At Equinix, we have put multiple schemes in place to nurture interest in STEM skills development. Our employees are involved in initiatives that encourage children aged 12-18 to channel their interests in studying STEM subjects, including a student mentoring scheme, work experience opportunities, and ‘world of work’ days which give children the chance to explore what it is like working at Equinix and the variety of careers we offer. 

Apprenticeships are also becoming an increasingly popular solution to nurturing young STEM talent. Unlike classroom learning, apprenticeships offer bespoke, hands-on learning – a style of learning particularly well-suited to developing programming and computing skills. Back in 2011, we identified the need for a route into the sector for people leaving school, so we began to devise our own programme for UK apprentices to become certified Data Centre Technicians. Since the initial roll out in 2012, we’ve introduced four additional training opportunities: an Electro-Technical apprenticeship, a Mature Student apprenticeship, a Customer Operations apprenticeship, and a Business Administration apprenticeship. These initiatives have proved popular, not least because they offer an alternative route into employment for those who might not want to go down the path of higher education. 

This was certainly the case for Tom Davy, who was part of the first intake of UK apprentices back in January 2012. Tom wanted to study multimedia, film and TV at Oxford Brookes University but at that time there were 17,000 applicants for every job in that industry. Consequently, Tom decided to take on an apprenticeship with Equinix instead. Now, six years and several promotions later, he is still with us and is building an incredibly successful career as a Senior Controls Engineer. Tom is just one example of how businesses in the technology sector can reap the rewards from a greater investment in skills. 

Take gender gaps seriously

When looking to engage new talent, we must also consider the gendered nature of the problem. False stereotypes that women are better suited to ‘soft’ subjects continue to deter women from entering STEM fields. Despite considerable progress in widening participation in STEM, it is no secret that STEM industries continue to see and suffer from a lack of women. 

The technology industry must be proactive in finding a way to inspire women, to address their concerns and to demonstrate the possibility of a prosperous and engaging career in STEM fields. Moreover, this work must engage women at all career stages, from students to the most senior leaders. Our Equinix Women Leaders Network (EWLN) is directed towards this end. The group provides a platform for female leaders to support each other and address the difficulties that women can face within business. Each year, the EWLN’s calendar is packed with workshops, panels, presentations and informal get-togethers. By establishing initiatives such as this one, businesses will show their commitment to ensuring women feel they would be fully included and supported once having embarked on a career within the STEM sphere.

Start now

The Government estimates that mastering AI technology could add £630 billion to the UK economy by 2035. But if the UK is going to reap these benefits, the STEM skills gap needs to close. We need to start now to nurture the interest of young people and develop the human resources required to deliver the promises of AI for the UK.

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