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The way we talk and think about tech is crucial to helping solve the skills shortage crisis

Companies are looking to short-term fixes to find IT specialists, but there is still a need for long-term solutions

Skills shortages are a problem the industry has been grappling with for years. The essential root cause is arguably that there are insufficient numbers of graduates coming through with qualifications in science and technology.

But now, Harvey Nash’s Digital leadership report, the world’s largest and longest-running survey of senior technology decision-makers, finds that shortages stand at their highest levels for many years – greater than they were before the pandemic.

In the UK, two-thirds of organisations say shortages are preventing them from keeping pace with change, with the most acute being in cyber security (42% of organisations reporting a shortage), big data analytics (36%), technical architects (33%) and DevOps (32%).

Indeed, according to industry data, shortages of programmers and software developers are the third most acute of all roles, behind only HGV drivers and nurses. 

With cyber security such a high strategic priority, our research finds that organisations are allocating more resource to infosec despite the skills shortage. Seven in 10 tech leaders say they have put more resource into cyber.

Short and medium-term solutions 

How can businesses find long-term solutions to meet the wider skills challenge? This is something I find businesses are talking to me about increasingly regularly.

The competition to hire new talent is intense. The heightened demand in the market also means that retention is becoming a problem. Technology experts know that the opportunities exist, and we are seeing salary inflation as a result.

In the short and medium term, I am seeing organisations take a number of approaches. Firstly, they are casting their net wider, considering candidates based further afield than they would have done before, due to the new remote working model. In our research, almost half of digital leaders say they are widening their searches. 

Secondly, businesses are speeding up their recruitment and approval processes. They have to, because market movements are so fast. It’s a case of holding a final interview within a week of the first interview and making an offer as soon as possible thereafter.

Success is not guaranteed because the candidate may have had a number of other interviews and we are also frequently seeing existing employers make a counter offer to try to keep hold of their team member.

Another common theme is to take a candidate who may not be a 100% match with the job spec, but who ticks most of the boxes and can be upskilled fairly quickly after joining. It’s a case of taking a long-term view based on someone’s potential and their cultural fit.

Upskilling is also a big theme internally. In fact, our survey finds that over half of digital leaders have increased the amount of cross-training and upskilling for their staff. This makes sense. Investing in and developing your own people builds engagement, loyalty and career fulfilment.

Clients are also looking to increase their use of contractors, given that permanent hires are so competitive. In some cases, they seem to have leaned on the big consultancies more as well, allowing a bit of “scope creep” such that the consultancies’ staff take on some extra work for which they are perhaps over-qualified. This is an easy fix to some short-term problems, but it’s not economical. I expect to see this being reined back.

Taking a longer-term view

Apprenticeships are also on the rise, with 52% of UK survey respondents expecting to increase them over the next two years. This can bring in a wider and more diverse set of talent, which is good for the overall health of a business. However, it is more of a long-term play because it will take time before an apprentice is able to take a significant role in key projects.   

However, ultimately it is longer-term approaches like apprenticeships that are needed. Shortages can’t be fixed sustainably through short-term measures. That is why public policy is so important too.

We strongly welcome initiatives such as the government’s National Skills Fund, which includes the Lifetime Skills Guarantee retraining options as well as a “digital bootcamp” programme. More recently, the Department of Education announced a new package of funding for free technical skills training for working adults at 10 institutes of technology around the country in sought-after STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, including artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber security.

Programmes such as this won’t change the picture overnight, but they begin the process of creating a wider pipeline of tech-enabled talent.

Changing the narrative

Alongside this public policy push, I believe we also need to shift the narrative in how we talk and think about roles in technology. Often, as an industry, we still speak in technical and remote terms.

Technology is actually central to how we live and work today – it’s about creativity and innovation and problem-solving.

Positioning technology in this real world way can help us create new sources of talent and get past the persistent headache of skills shortages. It’s going to take some time – and means businesses will be competing tooth and nail with each other for some years to come – but with the right combination of approaches, we can get there in the end.

Harvey Nash Group’s Digital leadership report is available here (registration required).

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