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UK technology recruitment: Turn on the talent

The hottest tech skills will always be in short supply and UK businesses increasingly struggle to find competent people to fill digital roles. But do companies’ approach to recruitment need to change?

Technology recruitment across the UK is buoyant. As more firms plough forward with fundamental digital transformation, they are seeking a broad range of tech skills – especially in the “hot” digital areas such as big data analysis, cyber security, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, agile development and DevOps.

Competition for these in-demand skills is high, and salaries are rising to reflect this. But candidates applying for these roles don’t always meet companies’ expectations. Often, they don’t have the requisite soft skills. Other times, they may have the right qualifications but lack sufficient experience to be entrusted with critical digital transformation projects. 

Brian Kropp, HR practice leader at CEB, a tech research and advisory division of global analyst Gartner, says: “There are several challenges emerging. Companies hiring tend to focus exclusively on the technical skillsets of employees. However, the biggest skill gap among technical staff is the ability to collaborate. As more and more work becomes cross-functional, as silos break down, the ability to collaborate has become the key differentiator of high-performing organisations.”

Yet he notes most companies’ recruiting strategy is based on whether or not candidates have achieved a particular certification or degree. “This approach artificially limits the size of the pool available to organisations. Instead, the best companies now focus more on testing for and developing specific capabilities. 

Education systems, meanwhile, need to rethink their approach to make sure they are building the skills and capabilities organisations need, not simply providing certifications of activities accomplished,” he says.

Katie Gallagher, managing director of independent trade association Manchester Digital, which represents more than 500 businesses in the north-west and has recently published a report on digital skills in the UK, agrees action is required to stem the shortage. “Here in Manchester, for example, three years ago only a handful of companies were recruiting for data scientist roles. This year, there are hundreds of vacancies for data scientists across the region – vacancies which we currently do not have the right people to fill,” she says.

Gallagher believes there needs to be a concerted effort to build more partnerships between industry and academia to ensure candidates have the right skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and a genuine understanding of the collaboration and teamwork required to thrive in today’s digital business world. “Professionals from the tech sector need to become more involved in the classroom itself – helping to teach and shape the next generation of digital talent,” she says.

But she agrees the UK’s tech skills challenge is far broader, and any solution will need to be multi-pronged. “The issues largely revolve around an overall lack of joined-up thinking around education, poor government policy and a lack of investment in the scalable solutions that will deliver the real, meaningful change we need. As long as our politicians continue to use education as a political football to score cheap points and bump up their approval ratings, we cannot rely on them to instigate that change,” says Gallagher.

“More flexibility is also needed from our universities and the courses they offer. Nobody can say with certainty how the future working landscape will look, and the skills required for employment are constantly changing,” she adds.

David Barker, founder and technical director at cloud provider 4D Data Centres, believes Brexit could make the skills shortage even more acute. “Quarter on quarter (Q1 2016 to Q1 2017) there was a 10% reduction in applications from the EU continent for roles in the UK digital economy. According to data from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, the sector relies on EU citizens to fill around 180,000 jobs – about a fifth of all tech jobs in London. By 2020, it is expected that the UK will have more than 750,000 new digital jobs and will need to train nearly 2.3 million people to meet the demand,” he says.

Look beyond formal training

While he welcomes recent efforts to encourage coding in schools from the age of five, he notes we won’t feel the benefits of such initiatives for at least another 15 years. Barker believes this means firms must relax their traditional requirements for formal qualifications – a strategy he’s been actively pursuing at 4D.

“If businesses want to ensure they get the best talent, they will need to consider people’s passion and self-taught skills, rather than requiring formal qualifications to even get through the door”
David Barker, 4D Data Centres

“If businesses want to ensure they get the best talent, they will need to consider people’s passion and self-taught skills, rather than requiring formal qualifications to even get through the door. A significant proportion of our engineers were self-taught when we interviewed them, and seeking people with a passion for technology is a major component of our hiring process at all levels,” he says.

Alan Furley, director of Bristol-based ISL Recruitment, agrees. “The education system is not churning out the right kind of technologists, and it’s not going to any time soon. In large part that has been accepted by many employers. Enlightened employers are now actively recruiting people without the precise skillsets they need, because they know finding such people will take too long – or won’t happen at all,” he says.

Employers need to fill the gap with in-house training and academic outreach, Furley believes. “It would be a great time for business to become more involved with the education sector, to energise schools and students for the task of solving tomorrow’s problems – not yesterday’s.”

Transform to attract talent

Another problem is that the most talented technologists tend to gravitate towards those companies perceived to be pushing the boundaries, both in terms of the technology they’re working on, and in terms of their working culture, practices and environment – and that typically means cutting-edge global tech companies and sexy young startups.

Clocking in for a 9-to-5 shift at a traditional, lumbering corporate just doesn’t cut it for most of the people everyone’s seeking to help shape their digital future. The answer, it seems, must go way beyond mere tweaks to hiring criteria – firms need to transform themselves into a workplace as attractive to top talent as, say, a Google or a Facebook.

One large business that’s made this leap is BP’s energy trading division, which is responsible for the complex task of getting the company’s fuel products to the people and businesses that need them, wherever they may be in the world, amid constantly fluctuating prices and demand. Today, that necessitates complex technology such as AI, robotics and data analysis, and the division’s IT department employs more than 2,000 people. That’s more technologists than most Silicon Valley tech companies.

Where formerly the firm would outsource most technical development or use contractors, now it needs those skills in-house.

Ayman Assaf, CIO for compliance, regulatory, risk and finance at BP Supply & Trading, says the business has fundamentally transformed itself into a more agile, DevOps-style organisation that can attract top talent by thinking and acting more like a tech company. “We want to demonstrate internally and externally that we are very similar in our approach to companies like Google, IBM and Microsoft,” says Assaf.

“It’s important to change your mindset. We used to follow very formal recruitment processes and trained people in a very structured way, using set programmes and methodologies. Now we’ve adopted an agile mentality, which is much more about collaboration, partnership and flexibility.

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“We work closely with the likes of Amazon, Red Hat and Salesforce. And we’ve managed to build the kind of relationships with them where we work jointly on projects. We get their people in to give us training sessions on new technologies and have even persuaded them to share knowledge such as how they manage their own talent acquisition and retention, which has helped a lot with our own transformation,” says Assaf.

He also says the firm has vastly broadened the pools where it searches for talent, actively engaging on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, for example. And Assaf stresses that focusing on diversity, particularly seeking more female applicants for roles, is equally key to skilling up. “Increasing diversity is important because if you’re only looking in one talent pool you’ll always have a problem finding the right people because there simply won’t be enough,” he says.

In addition, the company runs all sorts of training and development initiatives, both formal and informal. “For example, we do ‘train the trainer’, hackathons, workshops with suppliers, etc. We’ve even sent some of the graduates off to boot camp – to learn Python. We also do a lot of online training, as well as soft skills, business and leadership training where that’s needed,” he says. 

And it seems to be working. “Our graduate intake has doubled over the past three years and we’ve also taken on apprentices who we hire based on their appetite rather than expertise. We then give them very intensive, on-the-job training to equip them with the technical expertise and experience. Within a year some are as good as external hires,” he says.

While Assaf admits there are still challenges with recruitment, the nature of technological disruption across his industry means the direction of travel is clear. “It’s still tough finding enough developers, and we still rely on the contractor market in certain instances, but we are steadily building the right capabilities internally. We recognise technology is fundamentally disrupting our business, and there’s no alternative but to keep on transforming ourselves,” he says.

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