What steps can we take to finally close the tech skills gap?

by Jeremy

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Even though efforts to tackle the tech and digital skills crisis have been going on for years, little ever appears to change.

This apparent failure of seemingly endless reskilling and upskilling initiatives was illustrated by Lloyds Bank’s UK Consumer digital index 2021, which revealed that 17.1 million adults, or 52% of the total workforce, lack the essential digital skills required for work – and the pandemic has only made the situation worse.

The UNESCO definition of digital skills is having “a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information. They enable people to create and share digital content, communicate and collaborate, and solve problems for effective and creative self-fulfillment in life, learning, work, and social activities at large”.

According to techUK’s latest report on the situation, Fast forward for digital jobs, meanwhile, there is now a “significant discrepancy between the upsurge in demand for digitally skilled workers in areas, such as coding, and the opportunity to retrain in these fields for the many millions made redundant due to the Covid-19 recession”.

Moreover, the situation is only likely to get worse, with recent projections indicating that a further three million new jobs requiring digital skills will be created in the country by 2025.

In tech industry terms, though, says Bev White, chief executive of recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash Group, the current top five skills shortages, apart from cyber security, consist of coding, internet and technical architecture, organisational change management and cloud skills.

These shortages have led the Fast forward for digital jobs Taskforce, which includes players such as BT, Google, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, to ask the UK government to ensure industry skills certifications are eligible for support under the new Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

Its report also calls on government to work more closely with industry to open new “pathways” that support people in reskilling, while at the same time incentivising employers to invest in training their own workforces. To this end, it makes seven key recommendations:

  1. Showcase the life-changing opportunities of digital skills and jobs
  2. Champion bite-sized flexible learning
  3. Help learners meet the cost of training
  4. Help SMEs invest in digital reskilling through a Digital Skills Tax Credit
  5. Enable more SMEs to benefit from the Apprenticeship Levy
  6. Ensure education providers focus on job readiness
  7. Develop an online Digital Skills Toolkit 2.0 to help people navigate to digital skills and careers.

Is it enough?

But is it enough? Nick Gallimore, director of talent transformation and insight at software company Advanced, is not convinced. A key issue for him is where accountability should lie for reskilling. “I don’t believe it all comes down to the academic sector or government support,” he says. “They aren’t enough on their own without employers accepting the challenge of shaping people’s skills to become what’s required.”

While Gallimore sees “value” in the Taskforce’s seven recommendations, a big, unaddressed challenge in his view is that too many employers expect job-seekers not only to have relevant skills but also specific experience too.

“If employers aren’t willing to invest time and energy in people without experience, they’ll lose the collective investment that’s been put into developing those skills,” he warns. “There’s an issue here around barriers to entry, which also has a knock-on impact on diversity and inclusion.”

Although Gallimore acknowledges it can be difficult for some employers to find the resources to “help people continue on their learning journey”, for many, there is also the philosophical problem of understanding the value of “capability”.

“Lots of people believe that someone’s past experience is the best indicator of success, but studies show the opposite,” he explains. “What it’s really about is an individual’s capability to learn and the alignment of their values with their employer’s.”

As a result, Gallimore says that while “reskilling programmes can get people so far”, what will ultimately make the biggest difference in reducing the skills gap is giving people from non-traditional tech backgrounds a chance based on their potential.

To this end, Advanced asks job candidates during the recruitment process to complete cognitive and psychometric assessments. The aim here is to evaluate their suitability for any given job based on their cognitive abilities, behaviour and preferences.

No one silver bullet

But Harvey Nash’s White believes there is “no one silver bullet” to solving the skills problem as, in order to achieve better outcomes, “multiple things need to happen”. A key one is bringing government, education and employers together to cooperate on tackling the issue.

White is confident that the  “narrative is starting to change” though as people start to understand that the tech and digital skills gap will only continue to widen in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic if action is not taken.

“Industry, government and education are working together much more and asking what needs to be done to make change stick, so we’re seeing much more coordination,” she says.

For example, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Digital Skills launched a call for evidence this June to garner input from employers of all sizes and other interested parties, such as trade associations, trainers and educators, in order to inform its skills policy and understand what action is likely to be required to keep it up-to-date, inclusive and sustainable.

“APPGs have been working more in this way over the last year or two, but this particular report is the first I’ve seen that’s asked for cooperation like this,” says White.

But despite such promising activity, it will still not be enough to focus solely on fixing today’s problems. Instead, given the fast moving world of tech, it will also be vital to keep an unceasing eye on the future.

“Technology obsolescence is still continuing at pace, so it has to become systemic that government, industry and education constantly look at the dynamics of future demand, and what skills will be needed in two or five years time,” she says. “It’s key if we’re ever to truly get on top of the issue.”

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