The UK’s artificial intelligence (AI) industry is booming. The country is already home to one-third of Europe’s AI companies, nearly twice as many as any other country in the region, and AI is poised to contribute £232 billion to the UK economy by 2030.

But even as the UK is fast becoming the technology centre of Europe, companies are struggling to recruit the talent needed to keep pace with the rate of innovation. And while the government is – rightly – doubling-down on investments in AI projects and talent, progress is at risk of stalling if Brits across roles and industries don’t have the data skills to execute. Today, the UK could already be losing out on as much as £63 billion a year from its digital skills deficit.

There is a silver-lining: Brits are taking it upon themselves to upskill and reskill in data and technology subjects through online training. Results from Coursera’s database of more than 1.3 million UK-based learners show that AI-related courses were the most popular studied in the UK this year, with Stanford University’s online Machine Learning course topping the charts, closely followed by courses such as AI for EveryoneIntroduction to TensorFlow, and Programming for Everybody.

More can — and must — be done to ensure that everyone, regardless of their age, background, or personal circumstances, has the opportunity to develop these critical, future-proof skills.

Talent to fuel digital transformation

This year, the UK government announced investments of £1 billion in AI, including funding for 1,000 AI PhDs and training for around 8,000 secondary school teachers in computer science. Big commitments like these demonstrate the country is serious about retaining its position as a world-leader in digital innovation, and recognises the critical role talent plays.

As we head into 2020, will this be enough to plug the impending skills gap?

Some estimates forecast that Europe needs 346,000 more people trained in data science by as early as next year. And, with the onward march of digital transformation, the demand for data specialists is being felt across every sector, not just technology companies.

This challenge will only grow over the next couple of years. IDC predicts that by 2025 the volume of data worldwide will increase by a massive 61%, driven largely by growth in the types of data we’re able to collect. To capitalise on this data explosion, companies will need more dedicated data scientists, engineers, and analysts.

Companies will also need more employees across a range of functions to be data literate. Digital transformation isn’t simply about retrofitting new technologies to optimise existing processes. It’s about mining actionable insights from data, unlocking new opportunities through data-powered products and services, and in some cases even rearchitecting business models to capitalise on the data opportunity. This requires company-wide collaboration, and employees in every function and at every level who can think — at least a bit — like a data scientist. 

Digital skills deficit: Moving the needle

How do we build this data-savvy workforce? While it won’t be easy, Coursera’s end of year findings suggest that the interest is already there: people want to learn. Recent survey findings from PwC also support this, with 58% of UK adults stating they worried about automation putting their jobs at risk and 54% stating they’re ready to learn new skills or completely retrain to improve their employability.

This doesn’t mean everyone can – or should – take a sabbatical to return to university and retrain as a data scientist. Companies are increasingly stepping up to provide all workers with the opportunity to reskill or upskill in technical subjects while on the job, from data analytics to machine learning. Online courses are an effective way to roll out training at scale, enabling workers to select courses that match their competency level and learn flexibly at their own pace.

Success hinges on a firm commitment to celebrating learning. Indeed, employers have a major responsibility to invest in developing essential digital skills, creating a workplace culture that values training and upskilling. A stellar example is Novartis, whose 108,000 employees are currently using Coursera to earn new digital skills.

The State of Technology This Week

Democratisation of learning will drive innovation

As we close out the decade, the realms of education and work are converging, including with an increasing number of companies making notable commitments to reskilling and upskilling their workers. This year alone, we saw global juggernauts like PwC and Amazon make multi-million-dollar investments in on-the-job training.

Looking ahead to next year, talent will underpin the UK’s efforts to maintain and grow its position as a world leader in innovation. Ensuring individuals have the opportunity to expand their knowledge in technical subjects and gain valuable digital skills at every stage of their lives will be key to mitigating job losses from automation and accelerating digital transformation across industries.


Read more: STEM Day: How closing the skills gap benefits us all