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

by Joseph K. Clark

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”.

According to techUK’s latest report, Fast Forward to digital jobs. Meanwhile, there is a “significant discrepancy between the increased 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 worsen, with recent projections indicating that a further three million jobs requiring digital skills will be created in the country by 2025.

tech skills

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, technical architecture, organizational 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 the government to work more closely with industry to open new “pathways” that support people in reskilling while at the same time incentivizing employers to invest in training their 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 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 is that too many employers expect job-seekers not only to have relevant skills but also specific experience.

“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”.

“Many people believe that someone’s experience is the best indicator of success, but studies show the opposite,” he explains. “What it’s 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 programs can get people so far”, giving people from non-traditional tech backgrounds a chance based on their potential will ultimately make the most significant difference in reducing the skills gap.

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

No one silver bullet

But Harvey Nash’s White believes there is “no one silver bullet” to solving the skills problem as 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 people understand that the tech and digital skills gap will only widen after 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 see 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, 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 tech world, keeping an unceasing eye on the future will also be vital.

“Technology obsolescence is 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,” she says. “It’s key if we’re ever to get on top of the issue truly.”

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