How to Develop a Talent Pipeline

To train its future work force, IBM Canada is creating high school and college courses in AI
Illustration by Kathleen Fu

For artificial intelligence, 2015 was a watershed year: Suddenly machine learning was faster, cheaper, scalable and able to solve more complicated problems. At IBM, the leadership realized they required more software developers who were knowledgeable in AI to keep up. But Steve Astorino, VP of development, data and AI, encountered 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 post-secondary institutions—including Queen’s University, Carleton University and Bow River College—to create curricula and develop training in high-demand skills through a program called Learn@IBM. “Research and innovation are happening jointly between IBM and these programs, students and professors,” Astorino says, which in turn helps drive student interest in the field. Since these academic partnerships started in 2017, more than 2,000 students have received IBM micro-credentials related to analytics reporting and visualization, data prep and machine learning. “The caliber of applications that we get coming out of universities is improving,” Astorino says. “And there are a lot more data scientists now than there were three years ago.”

The company has also partnered with the Society of Women Engineers on the Tech Re-Entry Program, designed to help women who have taken a break from their tech careers update their skills. They offer training in digital and collaboration methodologies, as well as data science. Graduates aren’t guaranteed employment at IBM, but many do end up with jobs at the company.

“Without upskilling, we cannot move at a fast enough pace. The market is too competitive.”

One participant, a former government IT developer, had taken four years off to raise her son. She completed two six-month terms with the Tech Re-Entry program, where she picked up cloud computing and two new programming languages. By January 2021, she was working for IBM full-time as a software developer.

Upskilling is a necessary investment for companies like IBM Canada. “Without this skilled workforce, we would not be able to modernize as quickly as we need to,” Astorino explains. “We’re using AI in everything. Without upskilling, we cannot move at a fast enough pace. The market is too competitive, and it would be a huge hit.”

AI isn’t the only place IBM needs a trained workforce. Next up on Astorino’s radar is quantum computing, which enables computers to perform calculations in the span of minutes instead of weeks. That technology is unfolding at a slower pace than AI, so IBM Canada is engaging teenagers through a two-semester Introduction to Quantum Computing course, offered at select high schools. “We’re reaching out early to get interest from students,” says Astorino. “You’d never have seen a data science high school course before. Now, you just do a search on the internet and you can see how many people are doing AI, quantum computing and cloud computing fresh off graduation. It’s pretty impressive.”