Is it time for businesses to take responsibility for the digital skills gap?

Apprenticeships, coding academies, incubators, upskilling, open source - all of these are cited by academia, business and government as ways to plug the impending digital skills gap that, if we are to believe those who most frequently bemoan it, threatens to transmute into a gaping maw and swallow the economy whole.

Tamlin Magee Aug 17th 2018
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Apprenticeships, coding academies, incubators, upskilling, open source - all of these are cited by academia, business and government as ways to plug the impending digital skills gap that, if we are to believe those who most frequently bemoan it, threatens to transmute into a gaping maw and swallow the UK's economy whole.

Uncertainties surrounding Britain's exit from Europe has left both workers and businesses worried that the anti-immigration 'hostile environment', combined with the closed-border of a 'hard Brexit', will widen that skills gap further.

The British government estimates the number of people who don't know "one basic digital skill" at a staggering 11.5 million. For businesses, roles related to technology are mostly are an employees' market, with many companies failing to attract and retain talent.

Meanwhile, millions are in precarious work, unemployed or under-employed; which leads us to ask: why are companies struggling to hire for well-paid roles when there must be so many people in this country aching for a chance to retrain in tech?

With the government failing to step in - is it time that businesses took on more responsibility for filling that skills gap?

What is the skills gap anyway?

The term 'skills gap' refers to the fact that businesses are having a hard time finding and then retaining talent in technology, specifically when it comes to coding, data science, network engineering, cloud and cyber security skills.

This isn't a new problem. A search on the Financial Times returns one of the earliest references to the technology skills gap dating back to 2005, the same year that YouTube launched.

Since then there has been much ink spilled warning of a looming crisis, and yet here we are - 13 years later - and the problem has only worsened if anything. The digital skills gap is inherently a challenge: with technology growing exponentially, the rate of change tends to outpace education.

On the government and education side there has been a gradual shift away from arts and humanities in favour of career-based subjects which attempt to usher young people in the direction of science, technology, engineering and mathematics - the STEM subjects.

The debate over whether that is an effective strategy is for a different article (and almost certainly a different publication), but even with this nudging towards science, engineering and technology, there are still plenty of doom-and-gloom predictions from the big consultancies like Deloitte, and technology companies like IBM.

Industry 4.0

Hidden in a 2016 'Digital Democracy Manifesto' the Labour Party proposed a country-wide training programme to involve as many people as possible in coding, with a particular slant on open source. The 'coding for everyone' initiative would train both children and adults in learning to code software as well as build hardware.

As we wrote at the time, this chimed across party lines, as the Conservative government has spent years now talking up 'Industry 4.0' - a term loosely describing highly connected and automated industrial manufacturing, an area of industry that will be defined by people who can code, rather than directly operate, the machines of the future.

The past handful of budgets have at the very least paid lip service to the skills gap, with present chancellor Philip Hammond going a step further and introducing the new 'T-Level' technical qualifications.

And at the World Economic Forum at Davos this year, prime minister Theresa May announced an 'Institute of Coding' - a consortium of "60 universities, businesses and industry experts set to receive £20 million to tackle the UK's digital skills gap".

Even more significantly, a £1 billion artificial intelligence kitty in partnership with Imperial College London, including new PhDs in AI, hopes to "keep the UK at the forefront of innovation and build the UK's status as an AI research hotspot". Another partnership between UCL and Cisco for a joint artificial intelligence centre has similar goals.

The problem of now

Time will tell if these and other measures are successful. But even if they ultimately are, by the time these students are graduates, the gap will only have widened. There is a more immediate problem to be solved.

CA technologies' CEO Mike Gregoire recently said in an interview with Fortune that "a shortage of skilled tech talent won’t solve itself, and companies can’t wait for government to act." He added that government tends to move slowly, and now is the time for cross-company collaboration to solve a problem that they're all facing.

"Business leaders do need to take responsibility and work together to train people for jobs in the future digital economy," agrees Salesforce EMEA area vice president Adam Spearing. "No individual company, government or politician can solve a societal challenge of this scale on their own, we must take collective action."

But is the skills gap really a problem? What does it mean for technology workers? At the moment, there are job markets in technology that heavily favour employees - certified, qualified and competent developers often have their pick of jobs rather than competing heavily per role.

Is the skills gap actually about the health of these companies, which are having to pay more money to win over the best workers - and scrambling over themselves to offer perks, concessions, and projecting the image of a progressive place to work?

It is somewhat difficult to swallow the official line of many of these companies that plugging the skills gap is somehow a moral obligation which corporations owe to society. Nevertheless - it appears there's agreement from all corners of the political, corporate and academic spectrum that something must be done.

The end of box-ticking

Some recruiting and training experts are calling for a complete rethinking of the hiring process, to avoid the box-ticking HR-standard that leads to the vicious cycle for young workers of 'no experience, no job, no job, no experience'. This might include an emphasis on personality and soft skills, creative thinking and adaptability, over formal qualifications (apologies to T-Level students).

"Organisations need to embrace new hiring approaches based on demonstrable skills rather than the dependence that an individual must hold a certain certification or degree," James Hadley, founder of learning platform provider Immersive Labs told Computerworld UK.

"Looking to the future, I truly believe the most important matter in hiring a candidate will be down to the individual's ability to quickly learn new skills and then apply them.

"The organisations who will come out on top will be the ones who adapt their hiring techniques while also offering all staff, new and old, across all departments, the support and facilities to upskill in new areas to facilitate internal mobility."

Salesforce's Adam Spearing says to accompany this there needs to be a "fundamental transformation of what we consider to be education".

"Given the pace at which the world of work is changing and will continue to change, graduation needs to be seen as the start of something rather than the end point," he adds.

Continuous delivery is essential to releasing software: a program's lifecycle doesn't end when it's released, but it is continuously evolved with bugs ironed out as the product matures. Similarly, life-long learning should be encouraged to keep up with the rate of change in technology, especially given how prone to obsolescence everything can be, with technological disruption often arising unseen from unexpected corners.

"Developing a future workforce that is fourth industrial revolution-ready requires a clear commitment from education institutions, the government, and businesses to provide ongoing lifelong training in digital skills which are accessible to all," says Spearing. "Not only should this include investing in smart technology into schools and universities, but also by opening up access to education and recognising new models of learning, allowing everyone to develop a more diverse range of skilled talent."

Data analytics firm Qlik's head of data literacy Jordan Morrow warns that there is a growing gap in data skills that cannot be solved by traditional hiring or promotion mechanisms, and this will only be exacerbated with the rise of automation. Businesses need to look again across their entire structures, and consider upskilling workers in every department, playing to their individual talents and needs.

“We are in the midst of an extreme data literacy deficiency, and organisations need to upskill employees fast to achieve a sustainable level of growth in the next five to ten years," Morrow says. "Data is the new basis for business growth to derive insights, work more efficiently and get a step up on competitors.

"Our recent research found only 24 percent of business decision makers are data literate, meaning they don't have full confidence in their ability to read, work with, analyse and argue with data. This not only prevents them from thriving in their own job roles but hampers their ability to drive data-led cultural change across the business."

Morrow argues that companies need to be making the most of enthusiasm among the workforce about data, and appoint "data champions" to promote data literacy. He adds that organisations are "made up of very different people, parts and pieces," so this needs to be "done on multiple levels with the different data personalities across the business needing tailored support. Strong mentoring and stewardship will help create the right culture where anyone can thrive."

Open source

Open source could provide another way forward. There are plenty of free resources out there that are accessible for every would-be learner.

On a micro scale this has proved popular for hundreds of Key Stage Three students, who have for two years now competed in an open source coding competition sponsored by Red Hat where they were challenged to design apps for charities of their choice.

Software design mainframe firm LzLabs' CMO Dale Vecchio argues that the dwindling pool of experts in specialist areas like mainframe engineering has shifted from a "shortage to a crisis", as the people that understand these legacy systems are - simply put - retiring. He says that education in this area is at this point "too little too late" and that open source, realistically, offers the best way out.

"The resources will be gone long before new ones can be trained to provide equivalent capability," Vecchio says. "Organisations have been complacent for too long, and it's their responsibility to transition from proprietary, legacy platforms to open systems and the cloud.

"Organisations that do not make this move are in danger of rendering their core IT infrastructure inoperable by a modern workforce. Those that do however, then open their business up to the far wider talent pool of developers within the ever growing open source community.

"The difference between searching in vain for skilled mainframe developers and being able to pick from some of the freshest innovative open source talent is night and day and is an imperative move for business to stay competitive."

Brexit brain drain

Principal consultant at Cornerstone, Peter Gold, says that Brexit is already impacting companies trying to fill roles. "We only anticipate that this challenge will keep growing," he says. "It's critical companies educate their staff and plug skills gaps themselves with their own talent."

One country that has experienced brain drain is Romania - and its attempt to foster a thriving tech culture could proffer some clues for Britain.

Ever since the 1990s, says cybersecurity company Bitdefender's HR manager, Carmen Buruiana, there has been a "war for talent" in the technology market. The Romanian government ultimately joined with the technology industry to develop a plan to slow down emigration of the country's brightest, and retain talented staff at companies at home.

"One of the most effective measures was income tax exemption for software developers, which resulted in the increase of IT investment," says Buruiana. "Since then, the Romanian tech market has developed continuously due to foreign investment and local initiative.

Despite this, a scarcity of skilled professionals remains in the country, with only half of job openings tending to be filled.

Buriana says that Bitdefender has come to the conclusion that the private sector "has to play a crucial role in the educational process and take responsibility for it - considering that growth and innovation are the premises for the private sector and these can only be accomplished with very well-trained professionals, Bitdefender has developed several partnerships with Romanian technical universities."

These include academic courses in security designed by the company, as well as Masters' degrees developed with the University of Math and Informatics in Bucharest and the Technical University in Cluj-Napoca. Buriana adds that the company also encourages its employees to follow PhD programmes and teach courses in technical and maths universities themselves.

Looking beyond the corporate walled garden

A nonprofit organisation called TechVets recently signed a partnership with Britain's Ministry of Defence to connect veterans to training schemes in cyber security skills. Crucial Academy is another cyber security training facility that offers courses, for free, to ex-military personnel.

And Amazon Web Services' AWS re:Start Military also seeks to provide qualifications to people with its training and job placement programmes, aimed at educating young adults as well as military veterans.

These kinds of schemes, along with training, investment, apprenticeship, and graduate programmes ranging from companies like Cisco to Accenture to Salesforce and Capgemini - often fill fast, and with significant investment in the millions - proves not only that there is a willingness for companies to take a chance on training people who might not have formal qualifications, it also proves the willingness for people outside of the tech bubble to learn these new skills.

If businesses are serious about tackling this they need to look way beyond their walled gardens - and beyond these unilateral measures with universities or governments. They are a good start but ultimately they are disparate.

What about country-wide training and awareness programmes, or a centralised portal that collects all these siloed schemes and makes them accessible to everyone through a single platform? They could collate apprenticeship programmes, free online resources, nonprofits, affordable programmes - everything - in a single place.

They could be accompanied by national advertising campaigns that highlight outcome-based benefits of digital and data literacy. If the skills gap is serious as the transnationals say, why not advertise to plug it?

And as open source technologies only continue to grow, from networking to cloud, software and hardware, this could prove an inexpensive but relevant way for people to train independently and at their own pace, with a wealth of free courses available online for people to access: if only people were made aware and supported by every possible stakeholder - that this is not an untenable, but a realistic career, and that the barrier to entry need not be so high.