How will automation affect the IT skills gap?

According to research, automation is putting some job roles at risk, but could it also be the answer to the growing IT skills gap?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The data analytics behind the Wimbledon tennis championships

At the end of 2016, Sun Microsystems founder and billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla made the eye-catching statement that, in future, up to 80% of IT department jobs could end up being replaced by artificial intelligence-based (AI) systems.

Ironically, this would mean the sector that has done so much to automate away other people’s jobs over the past 40 years could find itself getting a taste of its own medicine. So should IT workers be quaking in their boots at this point or is the future rather brighter than Khosla’s prediction would have us believe?

The view of Hans Stiles, head of IT for the Arriva UK Trains Shared Service, is somewhat mixed.

“Do I agree that automation could render four in five IT jobs redundant? No,” he says. “Do I agree that automation will have a profound impact on the size and in-demand skills of an IT department? Absolutely.”

But in his opinion, the current move to AI is only the latest iteration in a “massive drive for consolidation” that has been going on for years under the guise of everything from virtualisation to cloud – and this drive has already had a “huge impact on the size of the IT department and the types of people employed”.

As a result, Stiles simply sees the “AI automation piece as a further evolution”.

In skills terms, he believes that commodity, repetitive, low-value “functional tech” roles will be undoubtedly be at risk in the new world.

But, on the other hand, as the IT department of the future adopts an increasingly advisory service/systems integrator role developing “solutions based on commoditised building blocks”, he expects that the skills required to run it will inevitably become more sophisticated.

“People will need to move from being hands-on technicians to being able to manage strategic relationships, suppliers and off-the-shelf solutions,” says Stiles.

“There’ll also be an increased need for change managers as we move to a more agile mindset, which means people will require the softer skills necessary to make the process smooth and to take users and the business with them.”

How skills will shift in the age of automation

This scenario will likewise see IT manager roles being replaced by IT business managers, who will act as account managers that handle the relationships between specific business teams and products.

Chris Rosebert, head of data science and AI at specialist tech recruitment consultancy Networkers, is also sceptical that as many as 80% of IT department jobs could disappear as a result of automation.

He cites the company’s recent Voice of the workforce report, which was based on a survey of 1,656 IT professionals worldwide and found that only 4% believed their role would no longer exist in five years time.

Rosebert believes Brexit will have more of an impact on the overall tech employment situation than automation, as leaving the European single market will only make massive skills shortages in the UK worse.

“Demand for tech skills is just going to increase. Automation may have some effect on service desk and infrastructure jobs, but the main impact will be on outsourcing and offshoring companies as processes – such as claims handling or answering call centre queries – are brought back onshore and automated. That’s where we’re seeing the main cases for AI,” he says.

Upskilling and retraining

In the tech space, workers such as data scientists, business analysts, software architects, high-level software developers and people who programme and manage the AI systems themselves will remain particularly in demand. Other areas of big corporate interest include cyber security, compliance and risk management.

But opportunities will also balloon as new industries and sectors such as self-driving cars and smart homes increasingly open up. This means that existing IT workers should be able to move sideways as long as they are prepared to retrain and/or upskill to ensure their skills are appropriate to the new positions being created.

Robert Coleman, CTO for UK and Ireland at CA Technologies, says: “Each of these industries is going to need specific skills. Some will be transferrable but some will be industry-specific, so the situation will vary, but we will start seeing a mix of specialisations, which makes it more important than ever for industry and universities to work closely together.”

This situation also means that automation is unlikely to solve the existing skills crisis as the problem will simply shift into new areas. The issue is only likely to get worse as the use of technology continues to spread and skills requirements become ever more sophisticated.

Steve Weston, CIO at recruitment consultancy Hays, says demand for technical expertise will simply continue to grow in line with ever-increasing digitisation.

“This view is supported by a Deloitte report, which confirmed that technology has created more jobs in the past 144 years than it has destroyed,” he says.

“Legacy skills may reduce and become automated, yet every other aspect of our digital and IT capacity will grow.”

In order to cope with this changing skills dynamic, Arriva’s Stiles recommends two possible approaches. The first is to introduce an apprenticeship scheme to produce home-grown talent, and the second is to use the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) to define and manage individual and team competencies.

“SFIA is a good way to map existing skills to what is required to refine the roles that exist. You can pick relevant skills and create roles and it’s clear what training is required to help people get there,” he says.

But as automation takes hold, Stiles also believes that the IT profession will require “more robust professional accreditation” in a similar vein to chartered engineers or accountants to maintain credibility.

“There’s currently too much variety on what ‘good’ looks like. But as automation takes hold, we’ll need a lot more consistency around cost, standards and benefits because its value proposition is about far more than just cost and reducing staff numbers – it’s also about delivering things quicker and to a higher standard,” he says.

Read more about IT skills

Read more on IT technical skills