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Starting a career in the digital economy

What is it currently like for young people trying to hit the ground running with digital careers? What do employers want from them, and how has the last year of lockdowns affected their chances at a digital career?

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One of the age groups hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK has been young people aged 16 to 24 years old. While the country now has nearly 700,000 fewer workers of all ages in employment compared with a year ago, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics under-25s account for a huge 60% of those who have lost their jobs.

Unsurprisingly then, a recent report published by research and information service, the House of Commons Library, reveals that unemployment among young people rose by as much as 13% in the last quarter (October to December 2020) compared with the first quarter of the year (January to March 2020). As a result, a total of 14.4% of them – the equivalent of 589,000 – are now out of work, the highest level since 2016 and up from 11.3% a year ago.

To make matters worse though, because high numbers of under-25s have traditionally been employed in sectors such as hospitality and leisure, which have been badly affected by the country’s repeated lockdowns, the most likely age for employees to be furloughed now stands at 17. A key concern is that many more will lose their jobs when the scheme comes to an end on 30 September.  

But the current relatively healthy position of the tech sector appears to stand in stark contrast to this gloomy scenario. A Tech Nation report entitled ‘UK Tech for a Changing World’ shows that over the last two years, the industry has actually created 2.93 million both technical and non-technical jobs – a jump in employment terms of 40% – and now accounts for a significant 9% of the entire national workforce.

Moreover, Michael Houlihan, chief executive of Generation UK, a not-for-profit spin-out from management consultancy McKinsey & Co that provides intensive tech training programmes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, believes this growth in demand is unlikely to slow any time soon.

“The UK will create three million tech jobs by 2025, which is a huge number and offers so much promise,” he says.

“The problem is that there’s not three million people coming off the conveyor belt, and university, the traditional point of entry into tech, can only make a relatively small contribution of a few 100,000 over the next couple of years.”

The trouble with apprenticeships

But an inadequate graduate pipeline is not the only challenge that the industry faces – apprenticeship provision is experiencing problems too. For example, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of apprenticeship places available last summer across all sectors plummeted by 45.5% compared with the same period last year as employers reined in expenditure.

A study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development entitled Covid-19 and the youth labour market confirmed that 57% of medium-sized employers had declined to offer apprenticeship schemes over the previous 12 months, a figure that rose to nearly four out of five among small employers. Government incentives to try and reverse the decline also appeared to have little impact, with only 5% of employers saying they would consider hiring apprentices as a result.

As a result, the experience of Ikra Masood, who joined networking giant Cisco’s scheme in 2020, is not uncommon. She applied to innumerable employers before finding success, with some saying they lacked the resources to take apprentices on and others unable to confirm either future start dates or numbers of potential places.

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Paradoxically though, it was the economic situation and scarcity of other opportunities created by the pandemic that encouraged Masood to move beyond her comfort zone and pursue a “more future-proof” career in tech in the first place. Although it was an area that had always interested her, she had previously lacked the confidence to go for it “because I never thought I’d be good at it”, she says.

Moreover, points out Vanessa Hua, who has a degree in neuroscience but took part in Generation UK’s 12-week Get into Data Engineering bootcamp and is now a junior data engineer at comparethemarket.com, the industry as a whole can come across as rather offputting to outsiders.

“People – and I know I definitely did – feel like someone who works in tech looks a specific way, has a specific education and comes from a specific background,” she says.

Lack of clarity and tough competition

Another thing that does not help is the length and vagueness of many job descriptions, which make it unclear which “traits and skills the employer wants or needs”, says Hua. This situation makes candidates ask themselves whether “you should even bother applying because you think they won’t even look at you if you don’t have 100% of what they’re after.”

Nonetheless, she does believe that tech has become an “increasingly popular career option recently”, not least because many young people were forced into home learning. This means that “they’ve come to understand how useful technology is and the central part it’s played in the pandemic”, which has opened their eyes to the possibilities it offers.

But despite this rising interest, says Aude Barral, co-founder of developer recruitment platform CodinGame, young workers, even if they have the requisite technical skills, are now facing “tough competition” for entry-level jobs.

“The market for entry-level, operational tasks, such as front-end web development, is getting saturated, and the demand is much more for highly-skilled positions in areas, such as AI and cloud management,” she says.

According to the company’s latest survey, the top three skill sets currently of most interest to employers are DevOps, followed by back-end and full-stack development capabilities, all of which require high levels of technical expertise and experience.

To make the situation even more difficult, says Barral, many organisations have become more reluctant to hire inexperienced personnel due to the challenges involved in mentoring and managing them remotely.

 “It can be hard supervising young employees remotely as they often need more support, and communication is very different in a remote working scenario,” she says. “Which is why, even in tech, younger candidates can have a real problem competing with those with more experience.”

The tech industry offers more than just technical jobs

On the plus side though, the tech industry consists of much more than just technical positions, points out Kathryn Baddeley, Cisco’s head of corporate social responsibility.

“Most young people love playing with tech, but they don’t necessarily see it as a career and they’re not always aware of the wide range of options available,” she says. “It’s not just about coding – there are roles in sales, marketing, data science and a host of other areas too.”

As a result, the company – which unlike many of its peers continued offering its apprenticeship scheme last year and, in fact, doubled the intake to 60 people – runs a job rotation scheme to both expose participants to as many options as possible and encourage networking. The programme, which was first launched in 2011, now takes the form of a degree apprenticeship and this year consisted of the “most diverse” group ever – 47% of participants were female, 42% members of ethnic minorities and 35% from disadvantaged communities.

But although the organisation had no doubts about continuing to offer the scheme during the pandemic, Baddeley acknowledges it was necessary to tweak the way things were done in order to support apprentices working remotely.

“People who started working six months ago have never been into the office, so it’s harder for them to create networks and feel involved,” she says. “So we’ve put a lot of effort into giving them the opportunity to meet other people and have exposure to managers – the rotations help here as working with new colleagues automatically builds a network.”

The apprentices are also encouraged to work with others in their own year group on charity fundraising activities and have had a number of meetings with key figures in the business, including the chief executive.

Taking a multi-pronged approach

Bev White, chief executive of recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, believes that over the next three years or so, apprenticeships will become an increasingly important way for the tech sector to move beyond its current “undoubted over-reliance on graduates”.

As the economy begins to bounce back, she also hopes to see more small, local firms resume hiring young people to help with tech support, thereby giving them work experience and “a foot in the door”, in many instances supported by the government’s £2 billion KickStart job placement scheme for young people on Universal Credit.

Generation UK’s Houlihan likewise believes that a multi-pronged approach to skills development will be vital to truly plug the UK’s tech skills gap. In highly technical fields, such as cybersecurity and AI, for example, he agrees that graduate education is crucial.

Computer science apprenticeships sit in the middle to provide learners with structured, ongoing training and paid work experience, in his view, while programmes such as those offered by his organisation help make young people “job-ready” in key areas, such as cloud management, data science and software engineering.

“Training provision for young people is continuing to be dialled up - universities will remain a significant part of the system and, while apprenticeships have been under-utilised in the tech sector so far, they will become more critical,” says Houlihan.

“But boot camps, whether they’re delivered by the private sector or social enterprises like us, will become increasingly important too, with each strata having its own role to play.”

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