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Building, recruiting and retaining digital talent for an automated tech-driven future

More than 75% of non-technical workers would consider a technology career, but are they the answer to the skills gap and how can organisations recruit and keep them?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Casting the IT skills net wider

As the pace of transformation increases in the technology industry, the gap is widening between the number of roles that need to be filled and the number of skilled workers to fill them.

Firms are struggling to find the people they need, with many claiming that graduates are leaving university without relevant skills and the talent pool for senior technical roles is too small. And by 2020, the UK is expected to have a shortage of 800,000 tech workers.

But focusing on candidates who have passion and a desire to learn, rather than those with detailed technical skills, may be the best way to bridge the skills gap and to avoid job automation for tech roles in the future, according to the Mortimer Spinks and Computer Weekly Technology Survey.

Paul Church, director at Mortimer Spinks, said: “If you don’t have a desire to learn, you are going to get left behind. It is reassuring, in a world of automation, that the need for soft skills is not going anywhere.”

Mortimer Spinks’ research found that 76% of non-technical or non-digital workers would consider a career in tech and digital, and 91% agreed that the tech and digital industry is growing rapidly.

Church and a panel of hiring managers and experts in the technology industry agreed that more firms should look into cross-skilling the workers they already have as one of the most effective ways to gain instant access to talent.

Some of the businesses surveyed by Mortimer Spinks and Computer Weekly said they were already doing this, with 33% of tech and digital workers joining the tech remit through cross-training via unofficial means such as shadowing or learning in their own time.

Church said: “Cross-training is the most organic and efficient way to get the right people into the right roles in your business. Just imagine what we could achieve if we had some formal processes for this.”

But many firms said there were barriers to this method of recruiting tech workers, with some saying they did not think this was an option or were not even aware of this method.

Many turn to outsourcing to overcome these issues, but Thierry Bedos, CTO of Hotels.com, said this was the “easy way out” and suggested firms should increase spending on cross-training or upskilling, using methods such as coding bootcamps or online courses.

By bringing people into the IT remit from other areas of the business, organisations also gain diversity of thought, said Bedos, because these workers will approach problems from a different angle and may have a different perspective than traditional tech workers.

“Cross-train and be willing to take this workforce that is not particularly ready now, but invest in that workforce because the dividends are very clear in terms of loyalty, in terms of the diversity these people bring to the table,” he said.

Diversity and stereotypes

There are a number of stereotypes that surround the type of people who pursue a career in technology, and Bedos said many thought there were high barriers to enter tech roles.

More than 30% of non-technical workers think a key requirement for a tech role is coding ability, 26% think candidates must have a tech-related degree and 33% think candidates have to be good at maths.

Role models talking about their career paths or jobs roles can often help people feel more comfortable about following a similar path, and by showcasing some of the people who have taken an alternative route into technology can encourage others into technology.

Initiatives like this can also encourage minority groups who are under-represented in technology roles, and many who choose not to enter tech, especially women, who claim a lack of role models contributed to their decision.

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Bedos said educating employees and organisations about diversity would help to make a change, and everyone should get on board to help shift the dial. “It is not a women problem, it’s a problem of society,” he said.

Almost 70% of technical and digital workers said they thought it was important to be part of a diverse team, but only 38% were aware of any official initiatives in their organisation to increase diversity and inclusion in tech teams.

But Roselyn Cason-Marcus, manager – global partner recruiting at McKinsey and Company, claimed that diversity programmes did not work because hiring managers were often not the drivers behind such initiatives.

Instead, firms should focus on changing their internal culture to allow employees to be flexible and inclusive in their nature, she said.

“In every society, women tend to be some form of carer,” said Cason-Marcus. “And if we are not taking into consideration the cultural issues and what the blockers are that remove women from the workplace and actually think about addressing them, that trend will continue.”

Many think technology roles are focused on coding, not creativity, but Cason-Marcus said a tech career should be marketed as something that is fun and inclusive.

“We make it too much of a corporate model,” she said. “We have a very a narrow perspective of what we call IT and many times women don’t fit into that.”

Soft skills

Employers are increasingly looking to hire people who not only have the technical skills needed for a role, but also have soft skills.

There has been a focus on soft skills and creativity in recent years as the digital age has made it more important for tech teams to communicate and innovate – 51% of non-technical workers believe creativity is an essential skill to have when breaking into the IT industry.

Problem-solving, creative thinking and communication are the top three soft skills that business leaders look for when hiring, and 56% of business leaders said they would consider hiring someone without a technical background if they ticked the right soft skills boxes.

Soft skills also offer a way to avoid job automation in the future, with 67% of non-technical workers claiming their jobs were unlikely to be taken over by technology.

But businesses are still focused on technical skills, too – business leaders plan to hire programmers, project managers and apps developers in the next six months, and take on data analysts, cyber security experts and artificial intelligence/automation specialists in the next three years.

How firms can close the tech and digital skills gap

The technology industry is suffering from a technology skills gap that is only getting wider. With the political climate endangering the UK talent pool and the education system lagging behind, how can firms bridge this gap? Mortimer Spinks suggests:

Soft skills – Don’t focus too much on technical skills, and hire people with soft skills such as creativity, problem-solving, leadership and communication who can be trained in the technical aspects of the role.

Cross-training – Teach existing employees the skills they need to move from their current role into a digital one.

Basic tech skills – Encourage workers to use online tools or clubs to learn the basics of technical skills, such as how to code.

Training – Invest in apprenticeships and junior roles to train up those who already have basic skills.

Communicating – Talk about technology, tell people what technology roles involve and help people understand and be inspired by digital.

Mentoring – Become a mentor or a mentee to further those who are already in, or thinking about, a technology career.

Project management is one of the easiest areas to cross-train non-technical staff for, according to 46% of business leaders, and software development is another a good area for cross-training.

But Andrew Harmel-Law, head of UX/Java at Capgemini, suggested looking at corporate training budgets to address the current skills gap and invest in cross-training or developing junior talent through massive online open courses (Moocs) or online training, because formal courses in some areas are not as available as might be expected.

“We started realising we had to branch out what we saw as training,” he said.

Harmel-Law also said the most experienced candidate was not always the best person for the job, and investing in apprentices and junior talent could be beneficial for innovation and company culture.

In a bid to keep up with the changing technology landscape, the UK government made it mandatory for children aged between five and 16 to learn computational thinking as part of the computing curriculum, but many say this has not been as effective as hoped and it will take many years for these young people to filter through into the recruitment pool.

Look at internal structures

Half of business leaders says the lack of talent and strong competition from other firms is blocking them from hiring workers with key skills, but Catherine Knivett, principal policy officer for digital skills at the Greater London Authority, said businesses should be looking at their internal structures and processes to make it easier to hire and train apprentices to fill roles.

Knivett said young people could “change the dynamic of an organisation in a really positive way”. She is working to set up a £7m industry-led programme for digital and tech occupations in London to grow the capital’s tech skills and diversity of talent.

The apprenticeship levy, which was introduced in April 2017, is intended to increase apprenticeships by requiring firms with a payroll of more than £3m to contribute to the apprenticeship levy in exchange for apprenticeship training funds, but Knivett admitted it was a big challenge to help firms to understand and implement these programmes.

“There is a real appetite to do it, but I think they need help to understand the process,” she said.

Ultimately, in order to close the skills gap and invest in the future tech workforce, employers should focus on developing and training workers, whether through cross-skilling, upskilling, apprenticeships or continuous learning.

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