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Artificial intelligence – we love it, we fear it, but few of us understand it. Whether you’re asking ChatGPT to “explain cognitive computing like I’m five,” or “name the best sci-fi thrillers” (Blade Runner comes in first), it can leave you both satisfied and mystified by how the digital know-it-all generates the seemingly perfect response.

But as scores of companies and entire industries embrace AI, many are keen to move beyond mystification and toward a career opportunity. Doing so won’t come cheap.

For those already in the work force and wanting to wrap their heads around AI, a machine learning postgraduate certificate or master’s in AI management will set you back between $3,000 and $70,000 for a year of studies. That’s based on tuition fees across 31 institutions providing these programs across Canada. But with 67 per cent of global employers looking for new ways to use generative AI – according to a March, 2023, report from Salesforce – it might be well worth the investment.

Higher education providers are certainly noticing surging demand for AI-focused upskilling programs. “We’ve seen a 43 per cent enrolment increase in the last year,” says Sean Woodhead, program manager for York University’s School of Continuing Studies’ certificate in machine learning.

A handful of new programs have also emerged to serve rising demand. Concordia released a certificate in AI proficiency last fall and McGill has an upcoming two-part program in data analysis for complex systems and data-driven decision-making.

“There’s been a lot of demand from people who don’t necessarily want to be in a technical role but just want to incorporate computational intelligence to help with what they do,” says Elisa Schaeffer, associate professor of applied digital intelligence at McGill. “To make better decisions, better analysis.”

But in an AI landscape that’s rapidly evolving, some worry about the durability of these credentials in contrast to their price tag. “It’s a major investment, major time and money,” says Ian Christie, a career coach at Bold Career Project, a B.C.-based career coaching service. “It’s important to look at the dollar cost and time investment versus returns.”

The new hybrid work, humans working with AI, will require more skills from managers

For 31-year-old Louay Mneimneh, the investment was a no-brainer. “It’s going to be a student loan that I’ll have to take but I’m willing to invest that money for the exposure and experience,” says Mr. Mneimneh, who enrolled in the 2024 cohort of the Queen’s Master of AI Management program. “I want to understand AI in a way that I can manage it – I want to understand the logic.”

A civil engineer by training, Mr. Mneimneh worked in construction and business consulting for seven years when he began to recognize the massive potential of AI in his field. But without any foundational knowledge in AI, or experience using it, he felt he was missing out on major opportunities.

“There’s a crazy amount of data in a construction site and with AI you can have real-time project analysis of the schedule, the timeline, the budgets,” he says.

Mr. Mneimneh belongs to the 54 per cent of global workers who believe that generative AI will advance their career – as well as the 62 per cent who say they don’t have the skills to effectively use the technology, according to a July study from Salesforce.

He expects to dish out almost $70,000 for the three-semester program, or roughly $22,000 per semester. But some of the sticker shock is absorbed by knowing that he can work while studying – most courses are offered after nine-to-five hours so students don’t have to pause their careers.

Not to mention, graduates before him have seen tangible ROI. “It increased my salary more than 40k,” says Amir Nejad, an alumni of the Queen’s MMAI program, who moved from a product manager role to AI and data science management after graduating.

According to Stephen Thomas, the executive director of the Queen’s MMAI, most students enter the program wanting a promotion or a raise in their current organization, much like those seeking an MBA. “Most people have a change either within the program or right after,” he says.

For those simply looking to brush up on their AI skills though, certificates are the more feasible option. McGill, for instance, charges $1,459 per course with a two-course requirement and a 15 per cent discount for alumni. Students learn how to use predictive analytics to detect fraud or optimize marketing tasks, though without a fancy degree at the end.

On the employer side, the demand for AI skills is certainly there. “There is not a single part of our organization that cannot benefit from AI advancement,” says Jas Jaaj, managing partner of AI at Deloitte Canada. While he supports students looking to pursue continuing studies in AI, Mr. Jaaj says he would direct his own staff to internal training resources first.

Still, Mr. Christie says anyone keen on upskilling and looking for a way to save shouldn’t shy away from asking management for support. Just do your research. “Knowing whether your company has a budget is important – often companies have a few thousand dollars a year for development so ask, ‘can I use that toward this?’ ”

Keep in mind, these arrangements have caveats. “They come with handcuffs, like, ‘you have to stay with us for x amount of years,’ ” he says, which might not be great for those looking for a career change.

Are you a young Canadian with money on your mind? To set yourself up for success and steer clear of costly mistakes, listen to our award-winning Stress Test podcast.

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