Five fresh approaches to solving the tech skills crisis
It’s time to explore new avenues to fill the record number of vacancies in the tech sector
The global skills crisis in the tech sector has reached a high and threatens to derail the industry’s seemingly unceasing growth.
But such unprecedented skills shortages are the result of a perfect storm, according to recruitment consultancy Harvey Nash Group’s Digital Leadership Report. Tech leaders intend to increase their investment in technology (60%) and related headcount (61%) this year to record levels. Yet, they are experiencing retention issues as employees re-assess their priorities (80%) or opt to take advantage of spiralling wage inflation (40%). The UK has also been affected by European workers returning home, says Andy Heyes, Harvey Nash’s regional managing director, UK South.
“From an economic point of view, the UK isn’t as attractive as it once was due to Brexit, the pandemic and a weaker pound,” he explains.
The area in which skills shortages are currently most acute is cybersecurity, where 43% of digital leaders are experiencing hiring problems, up almost a quarter over the past 12 months. Big data and analytics skills are next on the list (40%), followed by technical architects (34%).
The tech industry has underlying challenges in filling job vacancies. While graduate entry is still the most common path into the profession, universities around the world are not producing enough graduates to meet demand. Simon Short, chief operating officer of software and services provider Advanced, says: “There aren’t enough people in technology, which means we’re competing for the same candidates.”
But the sector’s focus on graduates also means the industry is missing out on a huge amount of untapped talent, according to James Barrett, regional director at recruitment consultancy Michael Page Technology. There may have been a big shift in the number of apprenticeships and boot camps, he says, but they’re still just scratching the surface.
To tackle the issue, about 51% of digital leaders plan to cross-train people from other parts of their organisation. More than a third have also widened their geographical recruitment net thanks to hybrid working, the report reveals. But it still isn’t enough.
Mark Watson, chief executive of Fat Beehive, a web design agency for charities, believes that historical race and gender biases have dissuaded many people from pursuing a career in tech. This has resulted in the sector being dominated by middle-class, straight, white males.
As a result, the secret to solving the skills crisis over the long term, in his view, lies in proactively seeking out non-traditional talent pools, not least to boost diversity. Here are four examples of employers that are doing just that.
Diversity of employee background, life experience and thought is vital in a sector such as tech, which prides itself on innovation, believes Watson.
Coming from a non-traditional background and an advocate of prison reform, he decided to work with Code4000 and sits on its advisory board. The charity teaches software development and basic skills to prisoners, with the aim to cut re-offending rates.
Fat Beehive, which employs 33 staff, has now taken on two of Code4000’s graduates and intends to hire another one each year.
Watson explains the rationale: “Companies should use their power, where they can, to do good. Giving people a second chance is powerful in and of itself but it’s also good for business, individuals and society.”
Tangible benefits include high levels of loyalty as people understand and appreciate the chance they’ve been given. Others comprise the different life experiences that they bring to the table, which is great for problem-solving, he notes.
But there are challenges. Many ex-offenders have grown up in chaotic, disorganised environments, which means they may need a bit more structure and support than other employees, Watson says. Consequently, each joiner at Fat Beehive is assigned a staff member to be their mentor and their first port of call in case of problems.
Watson explains: “You can’t just bring people in and expect them to fit into an alien environment. Some won’t have worked in an office before, so you adapt training and support to make it work.”
In the short term it is, he says, a more costly and less efficient process than the traditional route to hire, although people don’t earn the same salary as someone fully trained. In many ways, he says, it’s comparable to taking on an apprentice.
Ultimately, it’s about weighing up the pros and cons and working to ensure success. “You can’t just take on an ex-offender and expect it to be hunky-dory. It needs more commitment than that,” Watson says.
Despite worldwide skills shortages, the tech industry has a habit of throwing people on the scrap heap, whether it is older workers, women who left to have children or people with chronic illness, Short says. As a result, he decided to take a different tack when evaluating how to supplement the software and service provider’s existing UK workforce of around 1,800. Short is chair of trustees of charity Astriid, which was set up by his friend David Shutts following a cancer diagnosis.
It aims to match skilled professionals with long-term health conditions, such as leukaemia, multiple sclerosis and long Covid, with employers willing to accommodate part-time, flexible working arrangements. Once interested parties have registered on the charity’s website, an AI-based search service finds suitable matches and the charity makes the introductions.
Advanced has already taken on one employee to handle first-line tech support via this route but intends to take on four more over the next couple of months. The aim is to learn collectively from the experience with a six-month review, Short says, before expanding the approach into other areas of the business.
Key considerations include training managers to support new joiners effectively and hold potentially sensitive conversations to understand not only their capabilities but also their limitations.
“The thing with people with chronic illness is that there aren’t necessarily visual markers of diversity, which adds another layer of complexity, especially if they feel anxious about how to manage their day-to-day objectives and goals,” Short says. “It’s important to create a safe space to ensure people feel supported and can build their confidence and managers have an important role to play here.”
At the more junior, 18- to 21-year-old level, meanwhile, the organisation has abandoned the standard entry devices of CVs and graduate entry. Instead, candidates’ capabilities and personalities are evaluated via an online cognitive aptitude test before they progress to an internal assessment centre.
“We’re trying to attract young talent and raw capability into the workforce for the first time but also to supplement it with more experience, which includes people with chronic illness,” he says. “But while, like everyone else, we need skills and labour, the other side of the coin is social justice. We believe a key role of business is to support society and the wider community.”
In a world in which demand for skills is outstripping supply using traditional routes, says Stephen Paterson, head of people and technology at AND Digital, it makes sense to give opportunities to people with the right attitude and a genuine passion for tech.
To this end, the digital consultancy has teamed up with charity CodeYourFuture, which trains refugees and other disadvantaged groups to become web developers. After providing the charity’s senior technology people with coaching and mentoring on a voluntary basis for a few years, the decision was taken to hire two of its graduates: a steady flow of people every year is expected.
AND Digital employs 1,500 staff but aims to more than triple this figure to 5,000 by 2025. While it anticipates that much of this recruitment activity will take place via traditional sources, it expects a fair number to come through innovative channels, he says. Although no concrete targets exist at this point Paterson says that if they find the right people, they’ll hire them. “As a source of talent, we keep our hiring bar high. We’re not taking on just anybody. It’s about giving a genuine chance to people who are committed to a career in tech and want to make a success of it.”
While the recruitment process is similar to conventional agency hiring, providing refugee workers with effective support, particularly initially, is key to success, believes Paterson. After attending AND Digital’s training boot camp, which is compulsory for all entrants, each participant is given their own 12-month coaching, mentoring and training plan.
They are also assigned a buddy and allocated to a squad of 12 people, whose leader is their mentor. A full range of wellbeing and mental health services is available, as is professional development training. This includes language support and help in areas, such as understanding what constitutes appropriate dress.
Six of these squads then form a club of 80 people, each of which has its own office space, clients, and social and training calendar. The aim of this organisation-wide structure, Paterson says, is to ensure no one feels alone because everyone knows everyone else and feels invested in – as if they’re part of something small, but also something much larger.
The idea is to provide a fully rounded, holistic support that isn’t limited to career development but includes people development. That’s important because if people feel supported, they’ll fly, he explains.
Adopting impact sourcing – hiring candidates from non-traditional and underprivileged backgrounds – as an approach to hiring tech talent is not just a CSR commitment, it’s a business model commitment, points out Sandrine Asseraf, group managing director and ESG lead at Webhelp.
The customer experience solutions provider, which has a workforce of 100,000, was granted the Impact Sourcing Provider Award this year for its inclusive employment strategy. More than 4,400 people from non-traditional talent pools were taken on at locations across 25 countries in 2021 and standardised metrics were introduced.
In 2022, the aim is to roll out the model in each country hosting a new office. A further goal is to use the approach to hire 15% of all recruits in each of the supplier’s existing 55 global locations by 2025.
But to make the vision a reality, each country is required to commit to annual measurable targets relating to recruitment, retention and tenure. They are also expected to provide joiners with cultural bridge training, ongoing career development and personal support.
To achieve its goals, Webhelp is partnering with governments and NGOs, such as MigraCode in Spain and Harambee in South Africa, to create a holistic system where we all collaborate to identify the broadest talent pool, Asseraf says. Ensuring clients understand and are on board with the approach is also considered vital.
But taking this kind of approach does require planning.
“If you wake up one morning and a client says they want to start their project in two weeks, you’ll find it difficult if you want to recruit this way,” Asseraf says. “Instead, you need to build networks so you can hit the ground running.”
While impact sourcing may be more expensive than conventional recruitment approaches in terms of time, training and resources, Asseraf believes the benefits outweigh the costs. And not just for the individual and local communities concerned.
“It’s about creating a sustainable model for the company, as people stay longer and have access to a better future, which means we create a built-to-last model. Our clients are becoming more supportive of it. Individuals, the company, our clients and stakeholders are all benefiting,” she says.