A new global study of university technology research reveals dearth of UK specialists


Employers across all sectors face a mounting shortage of UK- based technologists specialising in artificial intelligence and related disciplines, Odgers Berndtson, one of the leading global headhunting firms has warned.


Although the UK is currently an international centre for artificial intelligence, numbers of top specialists most sought-after by employers are tiny in relation to growing employer demand. This is driving up salaries and threatening future competitiveness of UK firms, said Mike Drew, Global Head of the Technology Practice at Odgers Berndtson.


The study found that numbers of world-class PhD graduates innovating in new areas related to artificial intelligence are still in the very low hundreds internationally for highly specialised roles.

“We’re now talking to companies across all sectors about the impact of technology on their businesses – and it’s clear they need specialist skills in key areas like AI, machine learning and also digital ethics to drive and implement change,” Mr Drew said. “Seeing opportunities to digitally transform but not possessing the people to implement change will hold businesses back and create a competitive void”. Mr Drew said the firm has found it so challenging to identify people for AI-related roles within business with the right skills, that it has undertaken global research to investigate specialist expertise at over 50 international universities (below). This highlights the acute shortage of candidates with specialist skills in artificial intelligence and related areas of expertise. “The UK government urgently needs to encourage substantially more students already pursuing technology-related research to specialise in key areas like artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and machine learning because this, alongside a critical ability to assess societal impact, is what employers most need and want,” Mr Drew added. On the most recent count, just 5.5% of all post-graduate technology research in UK universities is in specialist areas like AI and machine-learning, totalling a mere 225  students. This compares to 4,000 in the UK currently pursuing further degrees in computer science (See notes. source: The Higher Education Statistics Agency). In addition, Mr Drew said the UK needs to do far more to encourage arts graduates, notably in subjects like ethics and philosophy, to do further degrees related to AI. “The reality of artificial intelligence is that it’s not just about technology,” Mr Drew said. “The social, ethical and philosophical aspects of applying machine learning and AI to everyday situations has major societal implications and increasingly companies want people to help them assess and understand this.”


A High Gender Balance


On the other hand, the study found that the gender balance, however, is relatively high - at almost 40% women and 60% men. This compares to a gender balance in comparable commercial roles of around 20/80 female/male. In some markets, notably Asia and Scandinavia, the gender mix within leading research teams in highly specialist areas is close to parity, and also ahead of that in the UK. Specialist post-graduate expertise in AI and related areas in the UK Computer science is a vast, largely male-dominated category – representing almost a fifth of all UK post-graduate research, and around two-thirds male. It is also something of a general “bucket”. More specialist fields have the greatest career potential, however, according to Odgers Berndtson. Currently numbers in the UK are very small in key areas like human-computing interaction and bio technology, though women are proportionately better represented than in computer science.