Case Study

NorQuest College’s Machine Learning Analyst program helps to close the ML skill gap

Machine learning (ML) is transforming the way we do things. As more and more industries and organizations adopt ML and data analytics into the core parts of their work, it's created a fevered demand for employees with those particular skills. To feed this need, a new program at Edmonton's NorQuest College combines technical education with other specialized skills to train graduates who can navigate this rapid shift in the working world.

"Machine learning is becoming ubiquitous. It's really the future of data analytics," says Shaunaugh Whelan, NorQuest's Technology Program Founder.

Whelan says demand for workers with experience in machine learning has been growing sharply in recent years. Sectors like healthcare, natural resources extraction, manufacturing and other industries are looking for employees capable of working with data. However, Whelan says there isn’t just the need for more people -- there is also a desire for workers with a different set of skills.

"They say they have a lot of engineers, but they need the entry- or mid-level workers.

I've heard machine learning compared to what the internet was 20 years ago. It was used by a very niche group of people. And now it’s part of everything we do every single day. So, it’s just a matter of time for machine learning to be really ingrained into things.”

Canada's first two-year ML diploma

To fill that need, NorQuest has developed its Machine Learning Analyst program, the first two-year machine learning diploma in Canada. The two-year diploma program is a mix of technical and business skills: students learn a combination of programming, data skills, business training and ethics. She says the goal is a program that answers "both sides of the question;" graduates will learn how to work with data and apply ML approaches but also understand business needs in a way that leads them to use those skills effectively. That way, they'll act almost as translators within an organization, creating a bridge between a business's technical and operation sides.

"We are really focused on training learners to have that business acumen, have that project experience, the soft skills that are really in demand for any career," Whelan says.

The diploma program offers other benefits for those seeking ML experience. A two-year program makes it more accessible for mature students who already have careers but are looking to make a change. Others might see it as a chance to upgrade their skills that will be invaluable in their current job.

"You can learn machine learning and be a nurse. You can learn machine learning and go on to create applications for natural resources or energy management or policy analysis ... we're not training people for just one career path."

An enviable AI ecosystem

NorQuest received funding from the Alberta Artificial Intelligence Ecosystem Initiative to help build the program. The support aided the college in designing the curriculum to balance data and professional skills. It was also essential to overcome some of the complicated technical hurdles NorQuest faced. Much of machine learning and data analysis work is done in a programming language called Python, which had to be integrated with NorQuest's existing platforms.

"Working with the Ecosystem project really enabled us to deliver an incredible learning experience. What we've created together is way better than what would have been created if we developed a program in a vacuum," Whelan says.

That spirit of collaboration is a vital part of building a robust educational network for those interested in machine learning. Whelan points out that Edmonton is in an enviable spot when it comes to artificial intelligence. A solid AI ecosystem has allowed NorQuest to draw machine learning experts as instructors and encourage students to see machine learning as a viable career option. That, in turn, gives local organizations a strong talent pool to draw from and the confidence to integrate ML and data analysis into their operations.

"Machine learning is a fundamental data skill that's going to be widely adopted in the next five years or even three years, especially here in Alberta."

The first courses in the Machine Learning Analysts program began in January 2022. Whelan says the college is currently working on developing other programs centred on data analysts and continuing to integrate more technological training into their other curriculums.

This project was part of the Western Economic Diversification Canada Regional Innovation Ecosystems (RIE) program. The initiative brought together nine organizations from non-profit, business and academia to establish viable uses for artificial intelligence and machine learning in health and data analytics.

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