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AI training grants announced for SMEs to close skills gaps

Eligible businesses can apply to fund up to 50% of the cost of AI skills training

The government has announced a £7.4 million pilot scheme to subsidise the cost of AI skills training for SMEs in the professional business services sector.

The majority (£6.4 million) of grant funding is available in the coming financial year, 2024-2025.

Through this pilot programme, eligible businesses can apply for funding for up to 50% of the cost of AI skills training for employees. 

The funding competition will be open to SMEs that have been registered and operate in the UK for at least a year and employ up to 249 employees. The businesses should also be able to match-fund 50% of the cost of the training.

Additional eligibility and full application criteria is due to be set out when the funding competition opens on 1 May 2024.

Read more: AI will not destroy jobs, says Bank of England boss

Simon Bain, founder at data platform OmniIndex, told HR magazine that the pilot is a positive step but more needs to be done to encourage AI skills investment.

He said: “It is fantastic to see more resources put into the technology that has the genuine power to transform our lives today, from healthcare through to environmental tech. However, we need to stop calling AI and other similar solutions ‘future tech’ when they are already here. 

“I truly hope this investment will help us close the gap, but we also need to ensure the infrastructure is in place today so that our economy, our research and our inventors can be at the forefront of this movement and not always chasing to catch up.”

The news comes as research from the workforce planning provider Orgvue found that 82% of firms are investing in AI, despite 50% being unclear on its business impact or how to implement it. Orgvue's research was published on Wednesday (13 March).

Based on an international survey of 1,000 C-suite and senior decision-makers at medium and large organisations, the report found 69% think AI will be the main driver of workforce transformation over the next three years.

Simon Fowler, CEO of Empowering People Group, agreed, telling HR magazine: "With the growing presence of AI in mainstream culture, this investment and focus is very much welcomed – and essential.

"Unlike anything we've seen before, AI brings new and unique opportunities for simplifying work. It also stirs up significant emotional responses, triggering intense sentiments that can make it controversial – and exciting. So, the more capable and versed in AI the population is, the better this will be for businesses and their workforces."

Speaking to HR magazine, Bar Huberman, HR strategy and practice content manager for XpertHR, added: “Upskilling the workforce is a big priority for UK CEOs. The government’s investment into training on technology is a welcome one, as the skills people have, and the skills employers need, have been mismatched for a long while.

"XpertHR research at the end of 2023 found that the adoption of technology and AI is one of the top five priorities for HR teams in 2024. The AI upskilling fund could be especially critical for organisations looking to take advantage of this technology that is increasingly becoming a key part of future business success.”

Read more: AI will affect 40% of jobs, IMF says

A £118 million boost to AI skills funding was announced by the government in November 2023, to fund 12 new centres for doctoral training in the development and application of AI. The grants scheme is also due to dedicate £1 million to help AI leaders cover the cost of relocating to the UK. 

The aim is to create 15 scholarships allowing international students to come to the UK to study science and technology courses, and  to create a new dedicated visa scheme for AI researchers to come to the UK on internships and placements early in their careers.