Please Take Care to Mind the Skill Gap

A while back, when Brexit was in its early stages, we posted an article to the Zircon blog questioning how a leave vote could impact those working in the technology industry. During the research for this article, we came across several reports expressing concern over a growing gap in the skills of local workers, and how the decision of many companies to offshore their development has given rise to a phenomenon known as the ‘Brain Drain’. Several years later, and as with Brexit, it seems that a solution to this lack of skilled engineers has yet to be found.

How Big is the Problem?

The tech industry is one of the fastest-growing in the UK, with one of the highest demands for skilled workers.  However, in a number of studies around 52% of digital businesses are reportedly finding it hard to fill vacancies that require digital skills [1].  According to these same studies, the number of tech vacancies currently in the UK sits at around 600,000, and this is expected to rise rapidly to 1 million by 2020 [2].  As things stand, this level of unfilled vacancies is predicted to be costing around £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP [3].

The UK is finding itself almost stuck between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, we are in the position of demand being pushed forward by the continuous pace of technological development, providing a successful and growing domestic sector.  On the other hand, we are only managing to stay afloat thanks to the support of talent migrating over from elsewhere within the EU.  When you take a look at the UK’s data centres, 1 in 5 key technical roles are filled by non-British workers.  Of course, with the topic of Brexit still looming on the horizon, there is no guarantee as to the availability of this crutch in the long term. In fact, companies are already noticing an increase in difficulty in attracting new members of staff from the EU.

Can Anything Ease the Burden?

When you consider the figures above it really hits home how important a resolution is.  However, whilst it may seem like an insurmountable feat to make even the slightest dent in the wall we face, there are a few potential courses of action that will be key if we are to overcome this challenge.

Open the pathway for careers in tech

Up until recently, there has almost been an overarching expectation from organisations that if a potential employee has a relevant university background, they would be prioritised over those without.  Considering that only a supposed 1 in 5 software engineers are self-taught, this rather narrow-minded approach has seemingly closed off the pathway into the industry for a great many individuals.  This perception has slowly shifted with the wider acceptance of other educational approaches such as apprenticeships, however, there is still room for improvement.  More clarity is needed from both organisations and educational institutions that there are opportunities for talented individuals, regardless of their background and that there are alternative routes into careers in tech.

Learning shouldn’t stop at the office door

Technology is never stationary for long, there is a constant drive for technology to advance further than ever before. In today’s day and age, the range and nature of jobs are changing at a much more rapid pace, further proven by the fact there are many jobs that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. As a result, even those already a part of the tech industry cannot get complacent and accept their place. Individuals should be prepared to continually upskill, and learn new skills, whether this be a new language or approach to working. Of course, this responsibility doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of individuals. Organisations will need to play their part in encouraging their employees to continue learning new skills, rather than be concerned that by doing so they risk losing members of their workforce to those who can offer more.

Don’t wait for the next generation

It may be surprising, but there are a number of skilled individuals who have made the transition into tech after starting a career elsewhere.  We have seen it ourselves during our apprenticeship interview days and in our staff.  One of the benefits of many technological skills is that they can easily be learned, and experimented with from the comfort of your own home.  By leading individuals that are already experienced with the expectations of the working environment into the tech sector, you will gain well-rounded individuals who can apply soft skills to their work and, as a result, are much easier to onboard into the working world. [5]

Diversity is key: Remember the other half of the potential workforce

Typically speaking, technology has traditionally been a very male-dominated sector, with very few women seemingly showing an interest in such a career.  Even now, only 17% of technological specialist roles in the UK are filled by women [4], which compared to the 35% in India shows just how far behind the UK is in this regard.  As with apprenticeships, efforts to encourage young women to take up a career in tech are already underway with the likes of Ada Lovelace Day and Women in Engineering events, but again there is more that could be done.  Whilst there is certainly merit in one-off celebrations, it seems that stereotypes and assumptions are still to blame for a lack of greater uptake.  How these issues should be addressed remains uncertain, however, until they are, it is unlikely that we will see any change.

Allow for access to talent

Whilst there is very little those of us outside of parliament will be able to do in terms of ensuring sustainable access to global talent, it is still worth mentioning here. Even if the ideas outlined in this article are followed to the extreme, it is unlikely that we would be able to function fully without some form of external support. We need to ensure that our “tech talent pipeline” is sustainable in the long term or else all other efforts would be put to waste.

Ultimately, getting the right result will come down to the combined effort of organisations changing their approach and positive action from those at the top. Of course, we can hardly expect to see immediate results, resolving a problem on this scale will take time, and the sooner we are able to act, the sooner we will start to make a difference. But if we all just sit around waiting for the first person to step in, the wall will continue to stand firm and we will be mere observers of an ever-growing crisis.

Coming up later in this series we are going to take a look at how the use of outsource organisations could help provide UK companies facing down this skills gap with a solution in the short term. We’ll be looking into the pros and cons of local onshore organisations, such as Zircon, offshore organisations in countries such as India, as well as a combination of the two, which is a frequently overlooked solution.

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