Sunday, September 19, 2021

Could AI Help with Intern Programs and Diversity in Tech?

I talked to HP’s head of diversity this week, Lesley Slaton Brown, about their intern program during the pandemic. It occurred to me that what IBM has been talking about concerning a Watson Assistant could be an ideal solution for companies attempting to build and scale out an intern effort like HP’s.  

I spent a lot of time lecturing online for the World Talent Economic Forum, primarily focused on helping emerging nations address current trends and update their education and funding programs to address those trends better. A prevalent recurring subject is the need to involve students earlier in intern programs to apply what they are learning and discover their path to career success and happiness.  

The historical problem is that young adults often come out of higher education without skills or any real idea of what they would enjoy doing, let alone with a career path that has been uniquely tailored to them. Those in intern programs get a far better foundation on applied skills, a better sense of what they enjoy doing in a job and a leg up in getting a job in the company where they interned, because they are a known entity and the program gives them critical contacts.  

Scaling these programs so they can do more to help minorities get into STEM courses and materially help solve the massive diversity problem the tech industry has is often problematic, but particularly so during the pandemic.  

Let’s talk about HP’s intern program and how a true artificial intelligence (AI) digital assistant coupled with simulations might allow an Intern program to scale to levels never before achieved, even during a pandemic.  

HP’s intern program

When the pandemic hit, most companies shut down their intern programs, because they struggled with what to do with their employees and lacked the bandwidth to deal with interns. But everyone realized this was creating a strategic problem, because internships better assure the hiring process for those exiting higher education by creating better trained first-time employees and providing a robust validation and assurance step for those young new hires.  

This is particularly problematic if you are trying to fix the diversity problem in the tech industry. The efforts to improve minorities in STEM programs are starting to pay off. Without the internship programs assuring training and validation, companies tend to fall back on hiring older employees who have job experience but lack the diversity the industry needs. The intern programs aren’t just critical for the intern, but for the diversity programs that companies like HP have committed to accomplishing. HP is one of the most aggressive, promising to reach a diversity level in senior management of 50% by 2030, but they can’t get there without their interns.  

They had two internship programs: a Summer Scholar program engaging 3,500 students focused on teaching them how to run a company like HP; and a focused internship program of 250 students, with 90% expected to be offered and accept jobs at HP. Depending on the assignment, interns were taken into their departments and engaged virtually with HP employees working on real projects. With a focus on pulling from colleges with diverse student bodies, they are systematically increasing the number of qualified diverse candidates they get and hire. This effort helps ensure they will meet those aggressive 2030 diversity goals.  

Adding AI for scale

A true AI assistant is trained to assist with data-rich decisions based on experiences it has observed or on which it has been trained. An internship program is designed to teach students how to apply their knowledge to real-world problems and give them the practical skills they’ll need when eventually joining a company. They provide a significant advantage to the students that participate in these programs.  

But you could use a program like HP’s to create a simulation of an internship program with similar tasks and measurements to provide a tuned artificial intern program with nearly identical benefits but for companies that can’t afford internship programs. The AI could provide and measure practical tasks that are uniquely suited to the student. These tasks could be tuned to their major while learning the student’s behavior, likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. The AI would refine the tasks over time and eventually suggest a career path and related courses and relationships that would most benefit the student’s personality and strengths. This effort would be measured on both the quality of the student’s adult life and how well they matched up to the career path the AI helped the student select, using the resulting data to improve the offering over time.  

AI development and effective deployment will be valuable skills as we move into this 4th Industrial Revolution. Knowing how to work with an AI will be critical to future workers. This program could be created and driven by the computer science departments tasked with training students to train and deploy AIs, while providing a critical resource that students throughout the school could use. Think of it as a digital mentor and one that could evolve as the student evolves, keeping them better connected to their school and assistant students that came after them indefinitely.  

Wrapping up

The workers of tomorrow will need the practical skills internships to provide but at a scale, current programs can’t address. In addition, many will need to know how to create and assure AIs to get some of the most highly valued and lucrative future jobs. Finally, with internship programs being reduced and never able to address the considerable mass of students that need them, there is a need for something to take the related mentoring that comes with an internship program to scale. AIs, like the Watson Assistant, could do this and better assure the future of our children coming out of higher education.  

In short, digital assistants based on true AI platforms like Watson could significantly reduce the diversity problems in tech and better assure a higher quality of new hires out of schools, both of which would be incredibly beneficial to our future.   

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