In a contemporary job market with ever diverging career paths and shiny new higher education options vying for the attention of students and new starters, it seems the AI industry is emerging lacklustre.
Research by BT Group in conjunction with Yonder Consulting into AI careers revealed 38 per cent of higher education students believe a career in the field is boring, with 59 per cent wholly unaware of relevant courses when making their degree choices.
As a student at King’s College London, I have witnessed the sheer deluge of options for university courses, degrees and classes today which render them nearly unintelligible.
The mundane titles and descriptions of degrees like data science, computer engineering, data analytics and computer programming, for example, sound almost indistinguishable. So unfortunately, it is unsurprising awareness about AI in higher education is getting lost along the way.
Zoe Webster, director of data and AI solutions at BT, told Mobile World Live the lack of clarity in educational communication needs to be addressed. “If you’ve got all these different terms, I imagine it can be quite confusing. I think we need to help people have a common understanding that if you go into any of these areas, you can have a career in AI.”
Yet, BT asserts there is no shortage of AI talent in the UK owing to efforts by the government, universities and businesses to offer bursaries and conversion courses. However, it seems the problem persists beyond the university level.
The operator’s research revealed a plethora of shortcomings in how employers offer AI jobs: vague job titles and responsibilities, dull descriptions lacking purpose and clarity, convoluted application processes, a daunting emphasis on coding, and a weightage of qualifications over potential.
Students in today’s technologically-saturated world face a vastly different job landscape than before. As I near the end of my higher education, I am certainly daunted by breaking into a new career, with the endless barrage of application portals, online tests and phone interviews.
And if all of that isn’t challenging enough, we students are flooded with vague job advertisements and early entry jobs demanding experience career starters practically can’t have.
This has indeed shaped misconceptions about AI which lead 46 per cent of UK students to believe careers in the field are “out of their reach”.
BT’s research further found that women and students from non-STEM backgrounds are the least likely to be aware of AI courses.
“There is this perception that AI is a very insular activity. This could be quite off-putting, particularly for girls or women. This seems strange to me because it’s highly collaborative in reality,” Webster added.
The reputation of a career in AI being solitary and coding-intensive seems to be a hyperbolic reflection of an industry minority, believes Webster.
“Typically, if done well in business, AI is highly collaborative and relies on different perspectives: the data, legal, and commercial perspectives, or the identification of business and user needs. And that’s all before you get to the technical side,” Webster explained.
It then seems the AI and higher education industries must jointly focus efforts on raising awareness about careers in the field beyond the limited scope of coding, a stereotype which presently pervades college course pamphlets and industry panels.
However, there are some drawbacks, particularly for women, the industry must address.
The typical perception of AI as a fast-changing field is one to be challenged, Webster argues.
“It’s the tools and the platforms that change rather than the fundamentals,” she said.
A fast-changing environment could indeed be off-putting if a person has to pause their career due to caring responsibilities, making it “feel challenging to get back in”.
To mitigate this, Webster suggests reskilling and retraining programmes for women who already possess the core requirements for an AI job, such as a law or mathematics degree. Efforts need to be directed towards “getting them into the industry by training them on the tools”.
But what draws new talent to the industry?
BT’s research identified key job characteristics to attract career starters as salary levels, training from more experienced team members, and career progression opportunities in the organisation.
Organisations in all industries can offer such prospects, but it seems AI needs to revamp and attractively repackage its job offerings. Crucially, AI job roles must be revised to reflect the variety and multifaceted roles the industry offers.
Nevertheless, the research reveals AI students are motivated by a desire to make a positive impact, with 87 per cent seeking to make a difference and be empowered in their career. A relatively new industry, AI has overcome turbulent funding over the decades to take on an increasing number of tasks and integrate deeper into our lives. Professionals including Webster want to make sure it does this “safely and well”.
This makes the incorporation of a breadth of diverse perspectives and new talent integral to the industry and its rapidly advancing technologies.
As a Culture, Media and Creative Industries student hoping to break into journalism, AI has always seemed an overtly technical, impassable world away. Writing this, however, has made me view the industry as more approachable, one with room for a host of opportunities.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.