Exclusion and the Skills Shortage

In this contributed blog post Leon Brown, owner of Nextpoint, talks about the role exclusion pays in the technology industry’s diversity gap.

Attracting and retaining skills required to develop and operate technology is a concern for all major companies. Research highlighted by Computer Weekly suggests that the UK is expected to have 800,000 unfilled IT jobs by 2020 – a figure not helped by the rapidly impending Brexit. Organisations who sell to global audiences may find themselves disadvantaged due to skills shortages, increasing salary expectations and being forced to hire applicants who are not ideal.

Through strategic planning, the industry can avoid this scenario while simultaneously addressing the moral issue of inequality through social mobility. Unlike the issue of diversity, where the technology sector must compete with other industries to attract the attention of people who already have many options, there is an opportunity for our sector to gain a monopoly over a segment of society that has as much potential, but has been neglected by both politics and industries alike.

We have the vacancies, the innovations and the earning potential to create rewarding careers – we just need to make them more accessible to people willing to earn their position. It is this last point that our industry systematically fails people from disadvantaged backgrounds at every point from access to technology and learning resources, to education delivery and the obsession with identity politics. Our industry prioritises its efforts to create a level playing field through programmes, funds and incentives to help people break the glass ceiling, while forgetting the people who are sinking in the quicksand. We allow this to happen because the unintentional exclusion of these people from our industry has meant that we don’t have any insight to understand the barriers that restrict their entrance.

Most of us take for granted the support provided by our parents, family and friends from childhood to adulthood. The comfort of being fed without financial worries meant we were able to commit our full attention and ability at school. In many cases, extra curricular activities encouraged and paid for by our parents led to our current success. In other cases it was the inspiration of a role model, advice or an introduction to an employer that led to a job offer that kickstarted our career. Although we’ve worked hard to get to where we are, our success is a product of the people who were positive influences in our path to adulthood.

The path to adulthood is a very different experience for people from disadvantaged circumstances. Financial issues are often the main culprit limiting a person’s potential, further impacted by negative social influences. It’s not uncommon for schools to provide children under these circumstances with the only reliable meal source. Hunger becomes a distraction to learning – leading these children to fall behind in their education. Parents affected by inequality often lack awareness and funds to hire tuition intervention that other parents would take advantage of, creating a situation where their children are left to accept low expectations and unresolved education issues.

Other factors relating to finances include basics we take for granted such as having a home internet connection and not needing to worry about electricity. Where funds are limited, people are faced with the option of topping up the electricity meter, having gas for heating or purchasing food. Even where there is internet access, this becomes irrelevant when there is no electricity. Without access to a working computer and online learning resources, potential to learn skills such as programming is stunted by their inherited financial circumstances. Like hunger, learning in the cold is also a distraction – meaning all options lead to limited learning outcomes.

Social connections also create a barrier to prevent these people from entering the industry. Often without parents, friends or family already in a career, they have no access to the informal careers advice, support and introductions we took for granted from our parents. Despite schools being legally obliged to provide careers advice, this is often second rate and inaccurate – especially for fast changing industries like technology.

The university route is often touted by schools and careers advisors as the only/best way into technology careers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. People from these circumstances have different requirements to succeed than the average person unaffected by financial and social inequality. Often with issues unaddressed from earlier in their education, along with no support from family and financial pressures to support their parents, these people are at best set up to achieve less than their class peers and are more likely to drop out or perform badly in their degree.

We view it as their personal failure when they don’t get the top exam grades; we tell them they were too lazy and that they should have no problem in achieving the same results as other capable people. We ignore the impact of being poor and its distractions from being able to fully master the skills we want them to have. We won’t hire them if they only received a 2:2 degree or less because we view them as less capable than the average person with a good degree – a 2:1 or above. We look at them as a statistic, comparing them on paper to people who have been provided with advantages at every step in their education – up to and including the job application.

In reality, the people who graduate under these circumstances are often the people we need in our industry. They have the resilience to persevere through adversity and defy expectations. These are people who have learnt how to tackle problems without needing supervision – because that’s the only way to survive inequality when parents and the authorities are unable to help. They don’t need you to micromanage their time to be effective; they will be proactive in delivering results because they recognise the value your employment represents as a route out of their circumstances. These are the minority who developed the ability to escape the quicksand – and have the potential to shatter the glass ceiling if given the opportunity. The question is, are we as an industry willing to give them a fair chance to show their potential?

By no means should we set quotas for businesses to hire people who face inequality. Ultimately, it’s only good for business when we are able to hire the best people for the job – a fair system offers no sympathy at the point of recruitment. So the question becomes about how we can create paths for people to become suitable for the jobs that need to be filled? Our industry needs to actively develop and promote programmes that invite people with ambition who can persevere to become the best – regardless of their background.

How are we able to create a level playing field where everyone has an equal opportunity to become the best candidate for our jobs? How do we avoid overlooking the best candidates through misleading statistics and their exclusion from support programmes? Should we recognise the contribution to inequality created by our obsession with diversity? These are the hard questions the industry needs to ask so that our businesses can benefit from a greater pool of talent without concern for political entitlement.

Our sector and society will only truly benefit from diverse talent when there are equal opportunities for everyone to become the best candidate, regardless of class, background, gender or race. Until then, we will suffer the high costs and missed opportunities associated with our focus on creating the illusion of fairness through equal representation and its politics.

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