In recent years, much of the energy dedicated to upskilling and reskilling workers has emphasized filling job gaps in particular industries. Google-led coding initiatives, for instance, are meant to train up more IT workers. New models for healthcare education, via badges and stackable credentials, are designed to address needs for more nurses and medical support roles.
But upskilling can also involve ramping up the kind of training that’s transferable across a variety of industries, in addition to multiple worker demographics. Artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a field that touches multiple parts of the American economy.
The skills connected to AI — data analysis, cyber- security, robotics, algorithmic programming — have become pervasive both inside and outside of tech fields. As a 2020 LinkedIn study reported: “Artificial intelligence will require the entire workforce to learn new skills, whether it’s to keep up-to-date with an existing role, or pursuing a new career as a result of automation.”
Because of that broad influence, business leaders now routinely express concern about having enough workers who possess the necessary AI knowledge. The LinkedIn report found that AI specialist jobs have grown 74% in a four-year span, and the work- force is struggling to keep pace. A study by the AI firm SnapLogic found that 51% of companies don’t have the necessary in-house AI talent, and only 31% felt confident they could upskill current employees.
Closing that gap will likely require a heavy lift in terms of education that can be done quickly and outside the parameters of the traditional four-year degree. For the past two years, Dell and Intel have been road-testing a solution on that front. Partnering with community colleges across the United States, the two tech companies have developed an AI curriculum that’s adaptable across multiple college departments and reaches a diverse audience of learners who are ready to improve their skillsets, and does so in a context that’s potentially scalable nationwide.
Among those targeted by the effort are younger career-changers who see AI as an opportunity to advance after a few years in the workforce. “The sweet spot is students who are older — people in their mid- or late twenties who want to come back to school, who may already have a bachelor’s degree,” said Carlos Contreras, senior director of AI and digital readiness at Intel.
And community colleges offer the base of learners available to meet the need, said Adrienne Garber, senior strategist, higher education at Dell. “They have access to over 12 million students, and that’s a very rich population for us to be able to influence and support.”
But the partnership approach has potential to do more than fill in a skills gap. It addresses the problem of degree inflation, which locks out disproportionate numbers of underrepresented groups from better-paying jobs for lack of a four- year college degree. It has the potential to address issues of bias that have shadowed AI technology.
And it reinforces a model for worker upskilling and reskilling that moves the burden away from colleges and companies alone.
“We’ve seen an increase in these types of programs at community colleges,” Martha M. Parham, spokesperson for the American Association of Community Colleges, said. “But we’ve also seen a greater interest by business partners to leverage the community colleges to meet some of their goals.”
Building a Program
In recent years, Dell and Intel have been concerned enough about the AI skills gap to underwrite an EdScoop study on the matter. The skills gap was well understood, but the study exposed how much higher education institutions were struggling to keep up. Only 45% of the colleges surveyed said that they offered programs in AI, with around 40% saying they lacked the necessary educational resources to train students in the field.
More traditional four-year colleges have an established infrastructure for teaching AI, but the study found that community college anticipated a higher spike in demand for AI training. So that’s where Dell and Intel have decided to focus their efforts.
In 2020, Intel launched a pilot program with Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona to develop an AI associate degree program with a curriculum designed by Intel. Last year, that effort expanded into a collaboration with Dell Technologies called AI for Workforce, bringing in 18 more community colleges and plans to expand to all 50 states by 2023.
That, in turn, led to the January 2022 creation of the AI Incubator Network, a program that provides funding and curriculum support to community colleges that apply for it. As part of the 12-month program, participating community colleges receive up to $40,000 in funding to support building AI labs and other educational tools.
The appeal of community colleges as hubs for the program is twofold, said Parham. First, they can ramp up a program faster and more efficiently than four-year institutions. “Community colleges provide skills training, certificates and badges for different types of career and technical programs,” she said. “They’re already set up to do this kind of work. They know local businesses and are there to fill the local workforce pipeline.”
Secondly, the community colleges are better positioned to reach underrepresented groups, be it in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and work experience. “Dell and Intel are both looking at increasing the number of women and minorities in these types of jobs,” Parham said. “And community colleges have long served those student populations.”
"The sweet spot is students who are older — people in their mid- or late twenties who want to come back to school, who may already have a bachelor’s degree."
The diversity of the program extends to the range of employers it intends to reach. Contreras points to research showing that the range of openings touching IT in Maricopa County alone included roles such as sales executive, health manager and business consultant.
“In Maricopa County, companies like Wells Fargo and State Farm have large presences. So, we’re seeing demand for these skills in fields that are not IT,” he said.
The program, as managed by American Association of Community Colleges (AACP), is designed for flexibility, to meet the colleges where they are. The AI Incubator Network supports funding for in-person, virtual and hybrid lab arrangements. Funding recipients are required to attend “train the trainer sessions” and support a minimum of 10 students for 12 months. Applicants are also asked to track impact in terms of students served and industries engaged.
In addition, the program prompts students to directly engage with local industries. “Students are working on problems and challenges from their local employers, and their student portfolio is a measure of their success,” said Garber. “You’re actually going to have a performative aspect of your degree as opposed to a certificate or a badge. It’s anchored in a learning experience, where you’re solving a real-world challenge.”
But the participating colleges have the flexibility to integrate the program into the departments it finds most sensible, and to decide whether the program feeds into a degree or credential. For example, Maricopa Community Colleges developed an associate’s degree in Applied Science in Artificial Intelligence through the program. Ivy Tech Community College in Lake County, Ind. uses it for a certification program in AI and cybersecurity that targets transitioning military and first responders. Central New Mexico Community College integrates the program with its computer science department, bolstering its robotics program.
That range of engagement in terms of disciplines and learners, Garber said, can help address one challenge: Biases that have crept into algorithms for lack of a variety of inputs. “There are pieces of [the Incubator Network program] that specifically address ethics within artificial intelligence.”
"Dell and Intel are both looking at increasing the number of women and minorities in these types of jobs, and community colleges have long served those student populations."
“We’ve seen cases where you’re having a health diagnosis and the algorithm assisting the health- care professional has inherent biases built into it. Increasing AI literacy for both technical and non-technical student populations creates an opportunity to educate and empower a more diverse and inclusive workforce — which will therefore make a more inclusive artificial intelligence solution.”
Nearly 200 students at Maricopa Community Colleges have taken classes through the pilot program, said Contreras. And interest has ramped up: Within two weeks of the announcement of the AI Incubator Network, around 100 community colleges expressed interest in participating. So, while the program won’t necessarily close the gap, it does promote the idea that AI knowledge crosses industries and meets students from a range of experiences.
“If you kind of look at how our curriculum is designed, it starts with no code,” Contreras said. “We didn’t lock people out because they don’t have the technical skills or the math skills. We want everyone to start with some basic level of knowledge around what AI does, and how it’s going to impact their careers and their life.”