Machine learning heats up the contest for human talent
Originally posted by Ruth Callaghan @ afr.com
As companies prepare for the artificial intelligence and machine-learning revolution, battlelines for talent have been drawn between the companies that actually do the work – and the consultants who tell them how.
IBM tops the lists for applications in the technology sector, with the scope of its work a key point of attraction.
The high attraction of jobs in the technology sector emerges as a consistent theme in the Top 100 Graduate Employers 2019, which is published on February 14. The guide is a co-production of The Australian Financial Reviewand GradConnection, which links university students to would-be employers.
Natalie Francis is Watson talent leader for IBM Australia and New Zealand, working in the IT giant's deep-learning artificial intelligence platform.
She says IBM can offer graduates the chance to work across sectors, as well as perform different roles within teams as they apply and develop their core knowledge.
"Graduates at IBM are coming into roles where you provide services to a range of different industries as opposed to just working in one," she says.
"From a career perspective, they can move across different industries but they also move across different functions. You retain your core expertise but you also get to do different jobs because of the diversity of our clients."
IBM works with dozens of Australia's biggest companies using Watson to drive machine learning and data analysis within business, and has the advantage of being able to supply whole teams of experts as challenges arise. In contrast, even big industry employers often have only a few specialists in key areas.
"If you look at something like cyber security – a job everyone is looking to fill – some of the skills you need for that are the technical ones but others are soft skills," Francis says.
"You need the ability to identify patterns and think logically. There are different cognitive skills and aptitudes needed.
"What IBM has in Watson is one of the most impressive learning systems that I've come across as an upskilling pathway. When we bring people in, if someone requires more knowledge around a particular area, they can have a personalised learning system driven by our augmented intelligence system."
Data scientists in huge demand
Data science firm Quantium is another IT specialist, consulting in the area of data, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
It's an area of hot demand, but founder and chief executive Adam Driussi says the firm's ability to understand graduate motivations gives it an edge when hiring from actuarial maths, statistics, computer science, pure science or psychology degrees.
"We know what it is like to hire data scientists because we are a firm full of them," Driussi says.
"They want to be challenged every day, they want the best tools and technology, to work with really smart people, and work on interesting, complex problems that add a lot of value to society as they are solved."
While there's huge demand for data scientists within the corporate sector, Driussi says it is a difficult skill to add in isolation.
"You can probably hire great graduates, but it is difficult to find people with 15 years' experience in the field to run the team. Who will your grads learn from? Will they get stimulated enough?" he says.
"A lot of companies have to use external firms because they can't compete to hire the talent."
From brand marketing to data security
Accenture human resources lead, Australia and New Zealand, Randy Wandmacher, says the consulting firm's clients can be at wildly different stages of the tech transformation journey, which means graduates are exposed to a wide range of challenges.
"It goes from asking 'what is my brand presence and what is my marketing presence', through to 'how do we deliver on that brand promise in the market', then digital transformation for a growth mindset and growth in market," Wandmacher says.
"Security is another big growth area. How do you gain insight from the wealth of data now available? How do you securely lock down that data, whether it is customer data, employee data or otherwise?"
About half of Accenture's business is now technology-related, which means Accenture is recruiting hard in the STEM space.
But Wandmacher says Accenture's model allows it to slot those consultants into clients as needed – even taking on the running of parts of client businesses to ensure they meet their objectives.
"We have partnerships with clients where we are very much integrated, doing their business with them; we even take over some aspects of their business and transition it like that," he says.
"But that said, we are always approaching work with the idea that we are building capability in the client. We want to be able to walk out that door with confidence.
Case study: 'Twins' at the forefront of new tech
They started with the expectation of joining the mining sector but two engineering graduates – nicknamed in their workplace the Watson Twins – are now consulting back to the resources industry from a new home at IBM.
And in doing so they highlight a key challenge for businesses across Australia: securing the IT talent needed to transform their industries, rather than losing expertise to tech giants.
Aaron Hurst recently graduated in electronic engineering from the University of Western Australia while his colleague, Kyle Saltmarsh, studied mathematics and mechanical engineering a few years earlier at the university.
Both were facing the prospect of operational jobs, likely in the mining sector, and Saltmarsh had already started as a mechanical engineer with BHP.
"But I was there for less than a year because I realised that my true passion was solving highly technical problems," Saltmarsh says.
"So I went back to uni and did a PhD for the Department of Defence."
After graduating a second time, this time with his PhD, Saltmarsh joined IBM and now works with Hurst, who had a similar realisation that working in an operational role was not for him.
"A year ago I definitely thought I would be in control systems engineering," Hurst says, noting the career path is a common one in Western Australia thanks to the mining sector.
"Now I'm an IT professional, I get to work with cognitive technologies, artificial intelligence, machine learning, image recognition and things like that."
The pair now consult to Rio Tinto at its operations centre in Perth, where they have picked up the nickname of the Watson Twins, in recognition of IBM's deep-learning AI system, Watson.
Saltmarsh says that if the pair had gone into mining operations, they would not have the same opportunity to work at the leading edge of cognitive technologies.
"I think as a human race this is a very exciting period," he says.
"We are at a point now in time where things are going to be really exciting, with AI, VR, biological engineering and space travel that we will see in our lifetime. That's the field I want to be in – at the forefront of technology."