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What is UK plc doing to address the tech skills gap in the face of Brexit?

The growing technology skills gap in the UK is widely known, with firms complaining of a lack of skilled workers – but what are they doing fill their empty roles?

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The UK, like elsewhere, is far from immune to the global tech skills shortage brought about by the huge pace of technological change – or its impact.

A 2018 study, It’s learning. Just not as we know it, by management consultancy Accenture, for example, predicted that if the G20 group of developed nations fail to ensure that skills creation keeps up with current rates of transformation, they could lose up to $11.5 trillion in cumulative GDP growth over the next 10 years.

But the situation in the UK has also not been helped by high levels of growth in the country’s tech sector, which points out Albert Ellis, chief executive of recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash, has attracted the lion’s share of investment at a European-wide level over the last few years.

To make matters worse, uncertainty brought about by Brexit has not only put a serious dampener on local candidates’ desire to change jobs, but has likewise had a damaging impact on “brand UK and the country’s power to attract and retain new skills and talent”, both from Europe and elsewhere, says Ellis.

The situation is also not being helped by the fact that the currency, and therefore absolute pay rates, have fallen against the dollar and euro by roughly 20% in real terms since the referendum – and candidates tend to use either currency as a yardstick when assessing salaries.

As a result of all this, according to a report based on a survey of 250 companies, Delivering skills for the new economy, undertaken by the Confederation of British Industry and IT services provider Tata Consultancy Services, many organisations are unsurprising struggling to recruit.

Just over two-thirds of UK employers have unfilled vacancies for digital jobs and only just under a third are confident of being able to hire the skills they need over the next three to five years. Moreover, three out of five large firms believe their digital skills requirements will skyrocket over the same timeframe.

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But skills shortages inevitably have an impact on a company’s ability to respond to, and exploit, technological innovation.

As Mohammed Rehman, programme team leader for computing at Arden University, says: “An organisation needs to have several core competencies to make it competitive and people are an essential part of the equation.

“Therefore, a lack of skilled employees means that businesses will struggle to keep up with the changes in the technological landscape, losing out to companies that do have these competencies,” he says.

So just what can UK plc do to address the situation? Here are three case studies of firms taking a range of different tacks to try and improve their lot:

Auth0: Remote working culture

Auth0 operates a “talent first, geography second” strategy when recruiting for new tech skills, an approach that is underpinned and supported by an enterprise-wide remote working culture.

The identity-as-a-service provider is based in Bellevue, Seattle, but set up a hub in London to cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) about two years ago. The EMEA business has since grown from 12 people to 94 operating out of 18 countries, which include the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey.

General manager for EMEA Steven Rees-Pullman, says: “We couldn’t have achieved that level of growth if we’d limited ourselves to a few streets around the office in Southwark. It would have seriously impeded our ability to expand and it would have been impossible to find the right mix of skills – so why settle for less simply due to location?”

In his experience, the main difficulty in recruitment terms is not so much a tech skills gap as being able to find the right mix of expertise, that is a combination of technical knowledge and the necessary soft skills to enable relationship-building and effective communications, particularly with customers.

But another benefit of taking a skills-first approach is that it becomes possible to hire in a “good mix of people from different cultures and backgrounds”, says Rees-Pullman.

“Casting your net narrowly seriously limits your ability to get hold of skills as you’re ruling people out based on their location rather than judging them on their ability,” he says. “We wanted a good mix of different backgrounds and experience regardless of location as it’s the best thing for the business and customers, not least in terms of introducing new ideas.”

Need for investment

But he warns that simply taking on remote workers as a means of cutting costs in real estate terms is guaranteed to fail. Instead investment needs to take place in order to help people bond and feel part of the team, whether that includes annual company get-togethers, group off-sites or workshops in the EMEA hub.

The right support infrastructure must also be made available in employee’s homes, communications tools, structures and approaches have to be thought through, and employment regulations need to be complied with across all applicable jurisdictions.

“So there’s a level of diligence that isn’t generally necessary, but it’s worth the investment as it’s made us a culturally much richer organisation and brought us skills that we otherwise wouldn’t have had,” says Rees-Pullman.

SmartDebit: Hiring for attitude and aptitude and cross-training staff

SmartDebit has revamped its criteria for hiring tech staff and started cross-skilling employees from other departments in response to a recruitment slowdown following the Brexit referendum.

The company, which employs 50 staff who provide direct debit services to businesses, has seen the number of potential candidates from the European Union (EU) almost halve, especially in the programming space, a scenario which started about six months after the vote.

Gavin Scruby, the organisation’s CIO, explains: “Recruitment agents are telling us that people are staying put in their jobs due to the uncertainty, but a lack of EU staff is having the biggest impact. This situation is also being made worse because we’re not in central London where there’s a big pool of talent, but are 15 miles away in the Thames Valley corridor.”

As a result, about 18 months ago, the management team came to the conclusion it needed to do something different. One of the decisions made was to focus on attitude and aptitude during the interview process rather than specific skills and experience.

In other words, rather than only hire someone based on strict criteria, such as they must have three years of experience in C Sharp programming, it is now more about concentrating on how enthusiastic they are to learn new languages, how well they would fit into a given team or the wider company and how likely they are to stay.

“In the past, it was a simple ‘how well did they do on these tests?’ with a bit on sociability and how well they work with others thrown in,” says Scruby. “But now it’s far more about their willingness to learn, their sociability, whether they grasp key programming concepts during the interview process and what they want to do with their lives.”

Training and mentoring

The management team is also on the alert to spot employees with any aptitude or interest in tech and to offer them training and mentoring in the field if so.

One employee, for instance, started in customer service but began writing scripts to automate and speed up business processes. He agreed to take part in an assessment and was moved into third line tech support, before becoming a developer.

Not only does this strategy result in better staff retention as people feel they can progress in their career within the company, but it also saves the business money.

“We effectively pay £10,000 in internal and external costs to hire someone, but it’s a very complex business, so teaching them about it is much harder than teaching coding skills,” says Scruby. “I also reckon they stay with us on average two years longer, so this approach saves us between 20-30% on our recruitment costs.” 

Raytheon: Apprenticeship, women returners and talent pipeline building initiatives

Raytheon has introduced a raft of short- and long-term initiatives aimed at developing a new tech talent pool to break out of the current cycle of constantly swapping the same skilled workers with competitors.

As a result, the defence contractor, which has been building its business in the cyber security space over the past few years, launched a £2 million, two-year-long cyber-apprenticeship scheme this April for 70 people of all ages. The aim is to certify 280 apprentices over four years by providing them with an alternative to a university degree course.

The apprentices are full-time, paid employees and on completion of their on-the-job training will be qualified as either cyber intrusion analysts or cyber security technologists.

A second initiative is the Women in Cyber academy programme in Salford where the company is now based. The 12-week scheme was aimed at “tech-curious” females of any age or background who were looking to re-enter the workplace.

The first cohort of 10, which ranged in age from 19 to 50 and included a former digital marketing executive and forensic scientist, graduated in September.

Rather than provide the women with a specific qualification, the programme was intended to fast-track them into a technical cyber role at the organisation and therefore covered subjects, such as coding using various programming languages, Secure DevOps, penetration testing and application reverse engineering.

Flexible training

The training itself was also designed to be as flexible as possible to cater to people with caring responsibilities and so comprised of two days on-site and three days remote training each week.

As for initiatives with a longer burn to build a talent pipeline, one of these consists of a partnership with YouthFed. With the support of funding from the UK government’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Raytheon helped the youth development charity launch a Cyber Security Operations Centre in Salford in 2018.

The aim is to inspire young people aged between 16 and 29 from disadvantaged backgrounds to take up a career in the area by helping them develop technical, social and employability skills and providing a minimum of 30 hours work experience too.

As Sinead O’Donnell, Raytheon’s HR director, says the YouthFed partnership may not offer the “same immediate feed” of new skills, but “in the long-term, it will deepen the pool of talent in one of our key hubs, and in the meantime, it gives our engineers and programme managers the chance to participate in these schemes and the satisfaction of serving as science, technology, engineering and maths ambassadors”.

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The gap exists only because technology providers, like those quoted in this article, pay not attention to the provision of short course modules to give their customers staff the skills to use their products and services. The UK education and training "system" is geared almost entirely to providing background "education" not "vocational skills".
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