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Most people tend to think of the “IT industry” or “digital economy” when they hear the words “skills gap”, but the fact is there were skills gaps long before the first computer and there are quite a few today that have nothing to do with IT.
For example, you might have struggled to find a decent blacksmith 200 years ago if you lived in a certain area. Today, the lack of a battling centre half at your local football team could be a cause for serious angst, or there could be a shortage of decent plumbers in your neighbourhood.
Still, we’ve all grown accustomed to thinking of the IT industry as being plagued by skills gaps to the point where the chorus of employers bemoaning the fact graduates don’t have the right skills to fit their immediate requirements is becoming an annual fixture, like singing Auld Lang Syne to see in the new year. You can pretty much guarantee that whatever the ‘hot technology’ is this year or this quarter, there won’t be enough employees with the right skills to fulfil customer demand for it.
Predicting future ‘hot’ skills
But is it realistic to expect anything different? How can the skills gap be addressed when whatever skills employers are looking for today could be very different from those they need in 12 months or into the future? How can any business develop future talent if no-one can predict what the talent of the future will be? And how can a student predict the future to know which course will provide the in-demand talent when he or she graduates?
Looked at logically, it’s a bit of a cheek for the IT industry and employers to expect educational establishments and 18-year-olds to have a clear view of what skills they require when the industry can’t reliably forecast what trends will be predominant in a year’s time.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic about his forthcoming book Will College Pay Off?, Peter Cappelli, the George W Taylor professor of management at Wharton University, suggested some of the problems were caused by a change in attitude from employers towards graduates. Previously, they used to look for challenge“smart or adaptable kids on college campuses with general skills” and would “convert them to what they wanted inside the company and they would retrain them and they’d get different skills”. Employers are not doing that now. “They’re just expecting that the kids will show up with the skills that the employer needs when the employer needs them. That’s a pretty difficult thing to expect,” said Cappelli.
And it’s not easy to predict what the ‘hot jobs’ will be in technology because if you could, they wouldn’t be hot. “The reason they’re hot is precisely because you can’t predict them. And it’s not like all tech jobs are hot – that’s a myth. The ones that are hot vary every few years, and the reason they’re hot is because something happens to increase demand, like a new technology,” he said.
Is a degree essential?
Cappelli also questioned whether degrees were necessary for many jobs where employers specified that they were. For example, the IT industry was built in Silicon Valley “with only 10% of the workforce having IT degrees”, yet “you can do most of these jobs with a variety of different skills”.
“People have come to think that you need these degrees to do the jobs, which is not really true,” he argued. “Maybe what these degrees do for you is shorten the job training by a bit, but that’s about it. And you lose a bunch of other things along the way.”
John MacIntyre, dean of the faculty of applied sciences at the University of Sunderland, accepts that there is an in-built lag between designing a course, delivering it and the students graduating. “It is essential that employers work with the education providers to help design, develop and deliver the programmes to ensure that they are as topical, relevant and useful as possible to the individual and the employer,” he says.
But MacIntyre admits that not enough employers are prepared to invest time and resource to really commit to helping to achieve this.
Richard Roberts, managing director of Cisco’s UK partner and commercial sales organisation, says motivating younger generations to embark on a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) is essential for the UK economy, but it can only be effective “if businesses and the government take responsibility for educating and exciting students, parents and teachers about the huge opportunities which Stem skills can unlock”.
Polly Purvis, chief executive at ScotlandIS, the trade body for digital and IT in Scotland, echoes Roberts by claiming “there has never been a better time to get into software and IT”. For young people considering their career options, the industry offers huge possibilities.
Scotland is currently developing an immersive coding academy, called CodeClan, that will produce “a steady stream of work-ready software developers”, consisting of individuals with “an aptitude for programming but previously without a route into the industry”, according to Purvis.
Roberts highlights Cisco’s involvement in external mentoring initiatives and its partnerships “with educational institutions to change how Stem careers are perceived and inspire students to partake on a rewarding career path”.
That’s much easier for large organisations to do, but the problem for the IT industry is that so much of the technology industry is made up of small companies. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills recently published a report which suggested the very high proportion of micro-enterprises and self-employment in the IT sector makes it hard to provide training and development because small organisations and the self-employed are less likely to undertake training activities.
The report added that rapid technological change should require more ongoing workforce training than other sectors of the economy, but training provision in technology companies was actually below the national average.
The onus is on the IT sector to increase training provision and continuous professional development (CPD) to ensure workers’ skills are updated in line with technological developments. But how can such training be supported in smaller firms and among self-employed workers, where financial and time barriers may be most likely to interfere with staff development?
Options for skills development
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills report says individuals, employers and sector bodies all have responsibility for ensuring training is undertaken and suggests greater use of online resources, along with stronger relationships between employers, local educational institutions and training providers to enable employees to undertake modular training with minimal disruption to work.
Kevin Young, vice-president and general manager, EMEA, at Skillsoft, says that while the cost of training is an obstacle to implementing a learning and development solution for small IT enterprises or for self-employed professionals, “the far greater deterrent comes from the cost of time out of the office for essential members of staff, often working in small overstretched teams”. Small firms are especially concerned about providing skills to employees who might leave the company when they become “more marketable”.
But the risks of not investing in employee training are greater, he argues, while pointing out that subscription-based e-learning courses are a “well-established” solution to the problem. “By eliminating the need to remove workers from their day-to-day activities,” Young says, “e-learning allows employers to sustain productivity while delivering essential training programmes that help employees further themselves personally and professionally.”
Brenton Clark, head of learning and development at Fujitsu UK & Ireland, cites recent research which found 90% of workplace learning takes place outside the classroom. “So it’s important employers invest in training provisions – particularly for turning technology skills into useful enterprising skills – that aren’t just classroom-based,” he comments. “Whether employees are learning through YouTube, social media or peer-to-peer learning, employers need to make sure the correct training provisions are in place to allow employees to up-skill across multiple platforms.”
Training programmes can often be the difference between a candidate selecting your organisation over a competitor, he says, adding that this is particularly true for younger generations. For younger employees, “the need for continuous training is even more important when trying to retain and up-skill this naturally promiscuous generation”.
Alex Tempest, director of partners at TalkTalk Business, argues that technology suppliers “have a duty to lower the skills threshold wherever they can to make it easier for the whole IT industry to take advantage of the constantly evolving climate”. They should seek to provide small IT businesses with “easily digestible information which they can consume when they wish”, which is reflected in the rise of online training portals with webinars.
“A collaborative ecosystem where large technology suppliers are transferring knowledge and skills to smaller IT businesses on an ongoing basis is beneficial for all parties,” she states.
Attracting raw talent
One way of bringing young people into an organisation is through apprenticeships. Beth Rose, training manager at Danwood, recognises the value of apprenticeships, arguing they can “enable any business to build a workforce that has the right skills and attitude, and fill the skills gap that may already exist within the current workforce”.
She accepts that businesses are often reluctant to implement an apprenticeship scheme because of a perception that they are costly, time-consuming and a further drain on resources across the business – but that is not the reality.
“From our experience at Danwood, this has not been the case. An apprenticeship programme can serve to motivate your current workforce and get them thinking about how they can improve their own knowledge and understanding of the industry they already work in. It will also strengthen local communities by giving opportunities to local young talent.”
She cites research from the National Apprenticeship Service that 80% of companies have reported a significant increase in employee retention and 76% of employers with apprentices agree they make their workplace more productive.
“At Danwood we have started to see positive engagement from those outside of the apprenticeship scheme, with internal requests for training,” Rose adds.
Another way is to recruit self-taught individuals who don’t have a computer science degree. Donna Sepala is director at Rawnet, which has employed individuals with degrees in computer science and others that are completely self-taught. “Both journeys certainly have their individual merits,” she says. Graduates in computer science may have learned “the much-needed fundamentals of development” but “the insight they get from applying what they know whilst on-the-job is critical to shaping, enriching and developing their understanding of what they have learned”. She says an increasing number of the younger generation are self-taught. “The primary reason for this seems to be a lack of specialised IT and computing educational opportunities,” she observes.
Matt Pascoe, senior illustrator at Rawnet, is a classic example. Over the three years of his degree in graphic design and illustration he had no exposure to computers at all. “I lived with two computer science students whilst studying,” he recalls. “When I talked to them about what they were doing I understood virtually nothing. Likewise, other than seeing that I could draw, they also did not particularly understand what my day-to-day was all about. So there we were, three intelligent and switched-on young men, the next generation of British industry, and none of us were aware of the emerging creative digital industry that we could all have taken by storm.”
While the degree laid the foundations for his future, Pascoe doesn’t believe it gave him any real help in getting to where he is today. “I work alongside people who are completely self-taught and their knowledge, just like a lot of mine, comes from experience and doing things for real,” he says.
Rawnet’s head of development, Ville Hellman, says the knowledge acquired in a computer science degree course might not help at the start of someone’s career. For example, students would have learned how to create a sorting algorithm, but modern languages and frameworks have built-in sorting algorithms. “Someone who did not attend university but spent that time learning themselves would know that the algorithm already exists in the language or framework and how to utilise it for the task at hand, but would not know how the underlying technology works,” says Hellman.
Soft skills key to success
Sonia Blizzard, managing director of Beaming, says successful computer science graduates in smaller businesses are those with experience of working in teams and interacting with the general public. “Technology moves on very fast, but the ability to move with it is based on problem-solving skills which, once acquired, can be applied elsewhere, but experience of working with others is also an important part of the job,” she says.
In this respect, she adds, the IT industry is just like any other: “It requires well-rounded individuals who have a strong work ethic and can communicate successfully with other colleagues, whoever they may be.”
Boosting job prospects
Rawnet’s Sepala suggests the digital and IT industries need “to encourage practical application in workplaces as a standard part of all courses to remedy the lack of employment prospects for graduates”
Blizzard reveals that Beaming has accessed modular technical training for its staff through the University of Brighton and has “started providing part-time jobs to Brighton undergraduates so they can gain real business experience while working to achieve their computing degree, which will increase their employability”.
Matt Hollingsworth, general manager at Aquila Insight, finds it self-evident that people working in information technology in the information age should be able to help address the skills gap. He suggests businesses look to encourage ongoing development within their organisations and to enhance employees’ soft skills. They should also listen to the experts to contribute to their training curriculum and use industry bodies for resources such as webinars, whitepapers, news articles and blogs.
Finally, whether a company has training at its heart or not, Hollingsworth insists it should never stop the quest for self-improvement. “If there isn’t a curriculum in place, suggest one. If there isn’t a budget, see what you can get free of charge. Having a highly skilled workforce is one of the key tenets of a high-performing organisation, so get involved and start to make a difference.”