For artificial intelligence, 2015 was a watershed year – machine learning was suddenly faster, cheaper, scalable, and able to solve more difficult problems. At IBM, leaders realized they needed more software developers with knowledge of artificial intelligence to keep up. But Steve Astorino, vice president of development, data and artificial intelligence, found a shortage of skilled workers in data science and machine learning. Like many new technologies, AI had grown faster than the industry could train a new workforce. So IBM set out to tackle the problem head-on.
First, the company partnered with postsecondary institutions, including Queen’s University, Carleton University, and Bow River College, to create curricula and develop high-demand skills training through a program called Learn @ IBM. “Research and innovation are co-occurring between IBM and these programs, students, and faculty,” Astorino says, which in turn helps drive student interest in the field. Since these academic partnerships began in 2017, more than 2,000 students have received micro-credentials from IBM related to analytics visualization and reporting, data preparation, and machine learning. “The caliber of applications that we get from universities is improving,” says Astorino. “And there are many more data scientists now than there were three years ago.”
The company has also partnered with the Society of Women Engineers in the Technological reentry program, designed to help women who have taken a break from their tech careers update their skills. They offer training in collaborative and digital methodologies, as well as data science. Graduates are not guaranteed employment at IBM, but many end up working for the company.
“Without improving skills, we cannot advance at a fast enough pace. The market is too competitive. “
One participant, a former government IT developer, had taken four years to raise her son. He completed two six-month terms with the Tech Re-Entry program, where he acquired cloud computing and two new programming languages. In January 2021, she was working for IBM full time as a software developer.
Upgrading skills is a necessary investment for companies like IBM Canada. “Without this skilled workforce, we could not modernize as quickly as we need to,” Astorino explains. “We are using AI in everything. Without a skill upgrade, we cannot advance at a fast enough rate. The market is too competitive and it would be a great success. “
AI isn’t the only place IBM needs a skilled workforce. Next on Astorino’s radar is quantum computing, which allows computers to perform calculations in the span of minutes rather than weeks. That technology is developing at a slower rate than AI, so IBM Canada is engaging teens through a two-semester Introduction to Quantum Computing course, offered at select high schools. “We are communicating in advance to spark student interest,” Astorino says. “You would never have seen a data science high school course before. Now, just do an internet search and you can see how many people are doing AI, quantum computing, and cloud computing recently graduated. It’s pretty impressive. “