Banks are feeling it. Builders are falling behind because of it. Manufacturers can’t get enough as a result of it. And in the information technology (IT) world, it is making employers desperate.
“It” is the skilled worker shortage, which is now affecting almost all industries, from the highest of high-tech to the basic blue collar, to jobs in industry and agriculture, but especially IT. Experts agree: There have never been more available jobs in the industry, and never has it been more difficult to find skilled workers to fill those positions.
If there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill jobs, employers will, I believe, have to turn to artificial intelligence (AI) systems for help. That’s a good thing; as AI is deployed and productivity increases, companies will be able to leverage their human talent where it’s needed — to grow the organization with a human-AI partnership providing more and better opportunities. Intelligent systems will do the drudge work, like data mining and analytics, freeing up employees for more creative and company-growing tasks. As we shall see, current technologies work best when combined with human feedback. The robot does the repetitive work, even on a large scale, while the human is focused on contextualization and reasoning. It’s an almost perfect partnership.
Until that happens, though, business in the U.S., and the whole world, continues to try and cope with a massive employee shortage. The shortage is especially acute in jobs that require advanced skills. Forty percent of global employers report talent shortages, according to a report by the Manpower Group; 65 percent of tech industry leaders said that shortages were “hurting the industry,” KPMG says; and according to Indeed.com, one of the world’s largest staffing firms, “There are many more jobs calling for software skills than there are job seekers to fill them.”
Why is this happening? Where did all the workers go? There are several reasons, from slow response by educational institutions to changing industry needs, to an aging workforce that has not been sufficiently replaced, to a plethora of new jobs in advanced tech industries. As a result, companies find themselves competing for top talent; an army of recruiters raid, poach and outright “steal” employees from other firms. This competition has fueled a “price war,” with the price constantly going up for good talent. According to a study by PayScale, salaries for IT workers average from about $60,000 for a systems administrator, to over $100,000 for a senior software engineer.
Like in the other kind of price war that drives the cost of products down, the price war that is driving up the cost of talent is a no-win situation. Middle-tier firms can’t compete, and the biggest tech firms find themselves spending precious resources on talent that, according to another study by PayScale, are likely to look for a new job after just a year or so, as the employee turnover rate for Fortune 500 companies in the IT industry is the highest among all industries surveyed. Important tasks go wanting because there are just not enough people to do them. The biggest losers are middle-tier companies, and especially startups, which cannot compete with the Apples and Googles of the world. This impedes their ability to innovate, and could hold back advanced developments in tech fields, which are usually pioneered by startups.
As this labor shortage affects a wide range of industries, from construction and manufacturing to information technology, it’s clear that this is a systemic issue. So, the solution must go beyond specific changes in specific industries. Obviously universities and training groups will have to accelerate their efforts to train tech workers to fill industry needs. However, that may not be as feasible as it was in the past as student debt has become a major problem that is preventing talented students from committing to advanced university programs.
Therefore, industries may have no choice but to embrace the robot revolution as a solution to labor shortages. This truth is slowly starting to dawn on industry. Peter Sondergaard, Gartner’s EVP of Research, said at a recent conference, “If we look to 2018 and beyond, we believe AI will be critical to solving both digital security and the IoT challenges.”
In cybersecurity, for example, AI-powered systems can assist with much of the administrative work such as asset collection, asset verification, auditing, regulatory compliance checks, incident response, tracking — all paperwork that needs to be done and is often overlooked because there are not enough workers and not enough time to do the critical work of patching, strengthening systems and figuring out effective defenses for threats. That kind of menial work is what machines were designed to do. If AI can help the machines get it done themselves, especially since the work is largely not getting done anyway (if it were, hacking would be a lot less prevalent than it is now), cybersecurity is an area that could greatly benefit from AI assistance.
Data mining and analytics is another hot IT area where AI is a no-brainer. Suffice it to say that by the end of this year, there will be more than 8 billion connected devices slurping up data and uploading it to a server (where it mostly sits and languishes) — a number that will grow to 20 billion within just two years. There are already not enough big data analysts and scientists; by 2020 there will be a far bigger demand. Without AI, there is no way companies will be able to take advantage of the analytics they already run on customer behavior, commitment, response, etc., much less develop new applications to better understand their customers and their industries.
That lack of personnel is the same in all the other areas where IT is set to expand, such as natural language generation, speech recognition, virtual agents (bots), machine learning platforms and much more. Without help from AI, none of these areas will take off as hoped. The sophisticated AI tech we have today provides an opportunity for companies to grow much more than they could if they relied solely on human talent. With workers utilizing their AI “partners,” they can be more productive and more creative, leading to more business and profits for their employers.