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Young wayward hackers could help fill Dutch IT skills gap

An initiative in Rotterdam is helping young people get into the IT sector by targeting those overlooked by traditional methods

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Benelux: CW Benelux: Young wayward hackers could help fill Dutch IT skills gap

There is a widening rift in IT. On the one hand, there is a scarcity of IT talent; on the other, there is a growing legion of tech-savvy youths who might fall for the “dark side”.

Companies and public bodies are struggling to find – and retain – IT professionals. At the same time, those very same employers are having to cope with increasing digital threats, often from youngsters with IT talents.

Today, any business is, in essence, an IT-dependent and data-driven organisation – or it soon will be. The need for digital transformation, disruption by tech-wielding competitors and unexpected startups, and security issues create an urgent need for expertise.

And there is unused talent out there. Younger generations are growing up with computers, smartphones, apps and clouds and are familiar with technology and its intricacies. But somehow, many escape the talent searches of organisations that are in desperate need of them.

But now a new Dutch initiative, launched by a powerhouse of cyber women in the Netherlands, seems to have the solution. The Cyber Workplace, roughly translated from the Dutch name “Cyberwerkplaats”, actually harks back to a classic idea of the labour market – old-fashioned workshops and handicraft rooms at schools.

There, kids learned crafts and skills for future employment, such as welding or carpentry. Critically, the traditional “werkplaats” was also linked to actual companies that would offer apprentices employment, sometimes via internships, but also work experience posts and fully fledged jobs. These parties would sponsor workplaces and labour shops, as companies in need of IT talent can now do at the Cyber Workplace.

The idea for the initiative came to Mary-Jo de Leeuw when she was hired as a consultant by Dutch government city, The Hague. “It was actually born out of frustration,” she told Computer Weekly. De Leeuw is one of many experts who recognise the shortage of IT talent.

Read more about the search for IT talent in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has created the Hague Security Delta to address this issue and to boost the country’s development of IT security in industry and startups. But that approach might not be ideal to bridge the divide between IT talent scarcity and tech-savvy youths.

In politics, Neelie Kroes is seen as a figurehead to attract people, said De Leeuw. But Dutch politician Kroes – former European commissioner for the digital agenda – is a few generations apart from today’s youngsters.

Apart from the age difference, there is also a gap in education. “They are mainly fishing in the ponds of university and HBO [‘hoger beroepsonderwijs’, translatable as higher profession education] levels,” said De Leeuw, who founded the Cyber Workplace foundation.

HBO is a typical Dutch education standard which is below university level and is aimed at actual professions. Where a university would teach law, an HBO school would teach students towards a specific legal job.

The Netherlands’ hunt for IT talent is overlooking young people at lower educational levels and those who drop out of schools and universities. This is a waste, because a large part of the workforce is not HBO or university level. Also, IT and cyber security do not necessarily call for higher and formal education. Many innovators, disruptors and founders of large IT suppliers are themselves drop-outs or self-taught techies who think differently.

De Leeuw recognised the problem of not considering people with lower education levels for IT roles – “including people with autism”, she added. Autism, properly called autism spectrum disorder, covers a wide range of characteristics that can hinder people in the educational systems but might have great value in IT.

And so, the seed for a more practical, old-fashioned, hands-on approach was sown. “There is a similar initiative in Paris,” said De Leeuw. This, known as École 42, inspired her to establish the Cyber Workplace in the Netherlands.

First, the initiative needed its own space, and that is where De Leeuw encountered the first obstacle. Initially, she wanted to establish the Cyber Workplace in The Hague, but there she met a lot of bureaucracy. Not only was there an obligation to file an extensive plan of action beforehand, but there was also a requirement to sail under the flag of the Hague Security Delta.

Rotterdam mentality

That requirement clashed with the approach De Leeuw wanted. “The Hague thinks very much in profiles, but it shouldn’t be about resumés but about what you can do,” she said.

However, the high-tech consultancy where De Leeuw is associate partner is based in nearby Rotterdam. There the civil service was like a breath of fresh air, she said – the response was to go for it, with full municipal support.

For people who know the Netherlands, this might not be very surprising. The harbour city of Rotterdam is known for its “tackle mentality”, with an attitude of doing rather than talking about doing (“Niet lullen, maar poetsen”).

And so it went with the Cyber Workplace. In August, a pilot project began with 12 youngsters, including three girls. They received hands-on training, practical education and job opportunities. The latter might not be actual job guarantees, but it really is a goal of the Cyber Workplace. The link to real employers, and their tech needs, complicated the task of taking on apprentices and setting up the project.

“We were totally swamped with applications from youths who wanted to participate,” said De Leeuw. The number of applications reached 200 before the pilot began in the summer. Many of those candidates were “found” through another hands-on aspect of the Cyber Workplace – local police officers.

The old-fashioned beat cop who patrols and knows his or her neighbourhood is a powerful agent to spot tech talent, perhaps kids who are loitering around when they should be at school. Or youngsters sitting at home gaming and hacking all day or night, with the neighbours complaining to the police about noise. Instead of a heavy-handed approach to dealing with hacking kids, why not steer them towards employing their tech talent?

Contact and cooperation with local police is an important tactic for the Cyber Workplace. It can help youngsters build a career in IT, help the IT industry and the business world find and retain tech talent, and help worried parents and even neighbours. The next round of training, education and job experience is on the way. It is planned for January 2018 because of the need to build up a network of cooperation, including sponsoring businesses and their specific IT talent needs.

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