Given recent press stories about artificial intelligence (AI) and the threat it allegedly poses to UK jobs, some may be surprised to hear that the nation’s tech sector is facing its own crisis, because it can’t secure an appropriately-skilled and ambitious workforce.
And the crisis is real: some suggest the digital skills gap could cost the UK many billions in lost GDP growth. Somewhat paradoxically, some of the most pressing workforce shortages are in the very data science and machine learning roles that power ‘job threatening’ AI.
The lack of digital skills affects many areas of the economy, but it begins with and is most acutely felt in the tech sector itself, and the drop in available EU talent that followed the EU referendum in 2016 has not helped. Yet while many in tech have seen this situation coming for years, and tried to recruit new talent – graduate programmes have been around for a long time – it doesn’t seem to be working, particularly for the less ‘glamorous’ tech firms and SMEs of this world.
It is now very clear that the UK must look to nurture its own talent to fill the ‘talent gap’, and in doing so, must fundamentally change its current approach to graduate onboarding and training programmes to suit the very specific demands both of the new generation of graduates, and those of the 21st century tech sector they seek to enter.
Because both of these have changed dramatically since many current professionals trained. Worryingly, for example, the average age of a professional working in cybersecurity, a tech discipline suffering badly from lack of young talent, is currently around 42.
Today’s graduates want to move fast: they are eager to learn and move on to the next, better paid and more challenging, part of their career. With many traditional graduate programmes forcing them to slow down and train for two years or more, frustrations (and sometimes increased workforce turnover) inevitably arise.
Modern graduates are also digital natives: they have grown up with tech, feel comfortable around it and are perhaps more open to its possibilities than other generations. How many parents ask their children to help configure their smartphone? This eager and forward-thinking attitude is itself a business asset that drives growth and prevents stagnation, and yet another reason why tech firms must change to cater for prospective trainees.
Learn faster, learn sooner
Some UK companies have already picked up this challenge and have run with it as the demand for digital skills spreads to other parts of the economy. As the UK grows its domestic talent pipeline, we must look ahead to the jobs of the future and ensure the next generation is equipped with the skills it needs. As such, digital skills programmes for graduates, designed specifically to meet the demands of progression-hungry new recruits are put at the top of the board agenda for the ever-evolving tech sector.
Many graduates today are looking for fast-track programmes because they want things now, they want to learn skills quickly and they want to get themselves out onto the job market. New schemes that act as accelerator courses or ‘fast-track academies’ rather than a graduate training scheme in the traditional sense, use a combination of shorter (but intensive) training directly based on client need, mentorship, buddying and early experience in the field to move graduates swiftly along.
The benefits of shorter but more intensive training schemes are likely to benefit SMEs and start-ups in particular, because these companies often lack the resources to run a full-scale graduate programme in the previously-accepted sense. Small tech firms, which are the lifeblood of the UK industry, need their graduates to master skills relevant to their particular niche, in an organised fashion. A condensed but intensive course allows them to do that with realistic expenditure which may also make them more appealing to graduates.
Shorter training periods may also broaden the sector’s appeal to graduates in non-tech disciplines, who may be ideal candidates for a tech career without realising it. In cybersecurity, for example, it is widely acknowledged that historians and psychology graduates have many of the data analysis and information-handling skills that area requires, but few would see themselves as ‘techy’. For those with little experience in the sector, a three-month training course is likely to seem much less daunting, and thus more attractive, than a two-year graduate training commitment.
Of course, condensing graduate schemes is not the only way to fill the talent pool. More targeted use of social media for recruitment, ongoing dialogue with specialist recruitment agencies and the pragmatic deployment of temporary and agency workers are all short-term fixes.
But the bottom line is, the UK needs more graduates to work in technology. And since the sector continues to rely heavily on the traditional graduate programmes – even though they no longer seem to have the desired effect – that seems the most intelligent place to start.
In 2018, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist gave a lecture for the Academy of Social Sciences, which described the UK’s many strengths in terms of technology, the crucial economic role of that technology and its diffusion between sectors, and the country’s role as a magnet for tech talent. If we want to retain that status (and we do), the time to act, the time to upskill our own upskilling, is now.