At the cusp of AI workforce development

Costis Toregas, director of the Cyber Security and Privacy Research Institute at George Washington University, was among the witnesses at Wednesday's House hearing on preparing the AI workforce. (Screenshot from streamed event)

A House hearing Wednesday on developing an AI-prepared workforce examined the challenges and potential solutions, with community colleges mentioned among the pivotal partners.

Costis Toregas, director of the Cyber Security and Privacy Research Institute at George Washington University and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration, listed for lawmakers a range of challenges in preparing workers for AI-related jobs and careers. Among them:

  • No standard terminology for AI skills, which are needed to monitor workforce development efforts.
  • Not enough teachers and faculty to teach AI.
  • Uncertainty about how to test students and workers for AI readiness.
  • AI courses at high schools, community colleges and universities are not organized around national best practices.

“We are at the beginning of the adoption curve for this powerful technology, and things are kind of messy,” Toregas said at the hearing held by the House Oversight and Accountability’s Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology and Government Innovation.

But there is a key participant that can help address several of these challenges: community colleges.

“They are able to change courses quickly and adopt AI-focused curricula, degrees and certificates far faster than other types of educational institutions,” Toregas said of community colleges.

Mirror the cybersecurity approach

Toregas noted that hiring workers with high AI skills will probably face the same challenges as when employers sought workers with cybersecurity skills. And it will likely require some of the same solutions, such as nontraditional education paths like apprenticeships, camps and upskilling programs.

He suggested that stakeholders can mirror the efforts undertaken in the cybersecurity field. For example, like with cybersecurity, networks of educators and education institutions with a common interest in AI can work together to create support for common curricula and student engagement practices. He cited the National Cybersecurity Training and Education Center, which is managed by Whatcom Community College (Washington) and supported by the National Science Foundation as a National Center for Cybersecurity Education. The center coordinates cybersecurity curricula and faculty development efforts and provides support to several hundred community colleges and universities, he said.

Lessons from IBM

IBM’s efforts to prepare future workers started about a decade ago with its difficulty in finding workers with skills in cybersecurity, said Timi Hadra, a senior executive at IBM Consulting. So the company focused on shorter training for individuals who didn’t have a college degree. In 2017, IBM launched registered apprenticeship programs for technology jobs that now cover 35 job roles, including cybersecurity, mainframe administration and development, and data science, she said.

Today, more than 50% of IBM’s U.S. job postings no longer require a college degree, and almost 20% of its U.S. hires do not have college degrees, she added.

Hadra encouraged the federal government to focus on “skills-first” hiring for its jobs and for employees working on federal contracts rather than requiring a baccalaureate of potential employees, which can eliminate a pool of qualified workers. Witnesses and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Wednesday strongly agreed.

IBM also supports efforts to expand Pell Grant eligibility to certain high-quality short-term workforce development programs, Hadra said, adding that the company backs a recent bipartisan House bill that would create the so-called Workforce Pell and another bill that would reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the nation’s main workforce development law.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.