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Bridging the channel’s skills gap for a stronger workforce

Hayley Mooney, General Manager UK, Crayon, shares some thoughts about navigating the talent shortage

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: Channel pushes on against the odds

In my role, I encounter two distinct situations that highlight the skills challenge faced in the UK channel sector.

The first is, perhaps unsurprisingly, when I look at what’s coming in the business’s project pipeline. Currently the market offers a wealth of  opportunities and I’m certain that I’m not alone in feeling the pressure to build up the teams we need to meet that demand at pace. It’s about technical skills, of course – especially in terms of emerging, transformative technologies for which genuine expertise is still incredibly scarce – but it’s also about finance, sales, operations, management, and everything else that needs to come together for achieving successful and valuable execution.

The second scenario is when I go out to local schools as a STEM ambassador. There, I’m faced with a very different set of questions: it’s about what children need to envision themselves in a technology career. It involves breaking down stereotypes, especially regarding gender, and a lot of broadening students’ sense of what a technology career might look like. Given that our sector isn’t widely-known even among adults, it’s hardly surprising that discussing it in schools tends, initially, to be met with blank stares.

Painting that picture for them – of the channel’s role as a broker of technology, executing major deals, enabling businesses by solving problems, bringing together different skills for a common purpose – and seeing interest start to spark is hugely rewarding, but it’s also a long road that needs perseverance.

Many tributaries, one river

Caught between the bedrock of early education and the hard place of building up capacity to deliver on accelerating digitalisation demands, the channel faces a complex environment in which to carefully navigate and address its skills needs.

That environment includes making sure that the right links are being built with universities showcasing the channel as not just a viable, but an attractive career path for new graduates. There is a particular challenge here as technologists often see vendors as their natural home, and the channel therefore needs to make a compelling case to attract fresh thinking.

And it also includes refining and expanding apprenticeship schemes, ensuring that there’s a wide range of routes into the industry so that candidates from all backgrounds feel that it is accessible to them. From personal experience, I have seen that when given the right opportunity, individuals can create significant value for clients, surprisingly quickly.

Additionally, it includes continuous improvement in terms of how skills in the workforce are kept up to date, as well as provision to employees to train in new technological areas. It’s a cliché to say that people are at the hearts of our businesses, but, given the distinct set of valuable channel-specific skills that employees acquire, investing in their technological knowledge can deliver outsized returns.

Moreover, the career pathway between vendors and channel businesses should not be overlooked. Here, it’s important to recognise how the skills landscape for the channel is currently transforming. Over the past year we have seen a significant contraction in workforce headcounts at many vendors – typically, though not always, this has been a corrective measure to the rapid expansion that came with pandemic-driven digital growth.

This has two potential impacts on our own skills conundrum. First, there are signs that, as talented workers come back into the job market and vendors remain wary about hiring, the pipeline of engineering talent is flowing a little more freely than it has in previous years.

Second, it means that we might expect to see a growing onus on the channel to execute the vital role of getting under the skin of clients’ businesses, assuming a strategic, consultative role of understanding their acute and chronic pain points and then developing tailored technological solutions. Whatever else the recent downsizing activity in the IT industry might signify, it represents a loss of capacity at a moment when the demand for digitalisation remains high.

Looking to the future of channel talent

For the channel it’s evident that building a stronger workforce is not only crucial for our own success, but also for meeting the technological needs across almost every industry. That’s why I think that now is the right time to take a more holistic, more collaborative approach for the industry to build a skilled workforce.

There’s no single tactic which will solve the problem. We must carefully consider how we differentiate ourselves from the job market offered by vendors. This may involve offering a more varied career path, taking a different approach to the work-life balance, or fostering a more inclusive culture.

We need to establish a clear identity that showcases the channel's opportunity to engage closely with the problems technology solves and execute solutions at a higher level. And we will need to build up the pathway into the channel for promising and established talent, starting with school outreach programmes that raise awareness around the industry’s potential.

These are conversations that I and other leaders in the industry are engaging in to create a more collaborative approach to meeting the market demand for the capabilities we represent. I can’t wait to see the channel take its next steps towards being the right home for highly talented workers.

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