Mind the gap

11 February 2021

It’s a new year. The Covid-19 vaccine is being rolled out worldwide, the USA has a new president and you are looking to hire or chnage jobs.

However, like in many industries, supply doesn’t always meet demand in this sector and that has long been blamed on a skills shortage.

The UK has long claimed to be among the – if not the – best and most advanced nation when it comes to tech, IT and data storage. If that’s the case, why are we where we are?

Paul Rivers, CEO, Guidance Automation is of the opinion we’re not quite as good as we make ourselves out to be.

“With the UK lagging behind globally in terms of skills, productivity and innovation, tackling this issue must be a priority for both industry and government,” he says. “The latest government initiatives and roadmap to attract global talent and better the UK’s reputation in science and technology is a great start, but the only way to continue this progress is more investment and emphasis on automation, robotics and technology as a career path.”

There are others who think there has been far too much talk and not enough action – so much so that it has become white noise.

“We’ve been talking about the skills gap for so long that I’m sure many are growing tired of the conversation,” says Matias Madou, co-founder and CTO, Secure Code Warrior. “However, it remains a critical topic as the gap continues to widen year on year, stifling both growth and innovation across the UK. Surprisingly the impact of the pandemic may actually help to narrow the skills gap, as increasing numbers of non-tech workers are considering a career move into the tech sector.”

Despite this Madou, cites a summer 2020 report from the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) and Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), which found that the cybersecurity skills gap worsened for a  fourth consecutive year. “We see a lot of security issues stemming from common vulnerabilities in code, pointing to a lack of secure coding skills and awareness amongst developers, Madou continues. Many finish formal training without a foundational understanding of how to write secure code, meaning organisations are required to either pay top dollar for candidates with security skills. An emphasis on training their existing teams, especially developers, can help fill this widening gap.”

The skills gap appears in reports every year, so it’s clearly not a fabrication. Yet for Sarah Gray, head of HR at Exponential-e, the UK’s skill shortage stems not so much from a lack of talent, but from increasingly high demand for it. “There is huge competition between both technology businesses and enterprises looking to hire IT expertise in-house, which makes it very challenging to successfully recruit experienced candidates, given the plethora of options available to them,” she says. “This is especially true in the UK. When I looked at a job site recently, I found 10,900 jobs advertised for cyber security specialists, 20% of which were based in the UK alone. Demand in the UK for cyber skills is sky high, but we don’t have the pipeline of talent to match it, whether that’s made up of people studying the relevant subjects, or simply experienced talent residing in the UK. This has also been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has seen a lot of people understandably returning to their home countries to be nearer their families.”

Security certainly appears at the top of most digital skills gap research and on the face of it, things don’t look to be improving short-term.

“A UK government report found 68% of cyber sector businesses have tried to recruit someone in a cyber role within the last three years,” says Madou. “These employers reported a third (35%) of their vacancies as being hard to fill. In 43% of cases, this was because applicants lacked technical skills or knowledge.”

Another tech role that proves hard to fill is that of software developer and according to Nick Ford, chief technology Evangelist for Mendix, this is due to the fact they possess a highly specialised skillset. “This high demand has created a short supply of developers, creating a developer drought for many businesses,” he says. “This drought poses a significant problem as businesses have a large amount of software to develop within their digital transformation projects, but don’t have enough developers to keep up.”

While it can be difficult to argue against statistics, that’s not to say the training isn’t there.

CNet Training is renowned for its technical education and training for the data centre and digital network infrastructure sectors and its president and CEO, Andrew Stevens, says looking for immediate options, organisations can still do more when it comes to recruiting.  

“If job roles all state a minimum of three to five years’ experience, you’re unlikely to consistently fill positions as there aren’t enough skilled people in the industry,” he adds.

“Those that do have the experience are more than likely already working for another organisation and therefore will need a desirable reason, additional benefits, salary etc to change jobs. Plus the industry is currently rife with organisations poaching each other’s staff and paying higher and higher salaries.”

That said, Stevens highlights some crossover industries and transferable skills that need to be taken more into account. He says individuals from the automotive industry, mechanical engineers, nuclear engineers and submariners can make great data centres technicians as well as ex-forces individuals looking for new careers after leaving the military. “All would make fantastic data centre technicians because they truly understand what mission critical is,” Stevens continues. “Opening up the recruitment process can help fulfil open positions. Another option is to look at the individuals already within an organisation and assess those who can be trained and mentored to progress through the organisation. It’s not just a skills shortage we face, we also have an ageing workforce, so we need to be looking to fill senior roles internally to protect the future of organisations.”

Still, there is a good supply of graduates in the UK with the appropriate skills and knowledge for technical roles, Gray says people also need to consider the training and development required for them to gain the business acumen and confidence to walk into a role, ‘hold their own’ and make a difference.

“A significant number of young people seem to struggle with the transition from the lecture theatre to the office,” she adds. “At times this can be due to the lack of strategic understanding, commercial awareness, and a basic appreciation of how to speak to customers. Employers must be mindful of this when it comes to hiring and training new recruits, as their skills are indispensable for any role in the technology sector. Businesses that get it right will be well placed to bridge the skills gap over time.”

It’s easy to point the finger of blame at training specialists and various companies for investing where they should, but technology is now advancing faster than ever before and keeping up with the latest, cutting-edge solutions – and the skills needed to work with them – can be difficult,” argues Sean Farringdon, Pluralsight SVP EMEA. “Consider the fact that just two decades ago, developers needed to understand only a handful of coding languages,” he says. “Now, there are over 250 languages and they are constantly changing — often multiple times a year. As a result, technologies mastered at university may be outdated by the time someone reaches the workplace, and upskilling employees on the job takes time and investment. This means many organisations are finding that demand for experts in AI, cloud, cybersecurity and DevOps is outstripping supply, and hiring the right talent is a challenge.”

Farringdon says further complicating matters is the fact all industries are now underpinned technology – from banking and finance to agriculture and retail, companies are migrating to the cloud, “AI is automating systems, and cybersecurity expertise is mission critical to protect against threats. In order to adapt to this change, the pool of tech talent is being increasingly stretched,” he adds.

However, there are some who are of the view that companies need to change their approach when it comes to building the right structure.

“A multidiscipline approach is vital to crafting a diverse cyber security team that can draw knowledge and ideas from multiple backgrounds, yet some organisations do not recognise the value of this and see it as a risk,” says Charlee Ryman, director of recruitment at Trident Search, “ Peoples’ brains work differently and having a cultured and symbiotic team will allow you to predict and prevent a threat actor’s efforts at multiple layers. Ryman highlights the importance of getting ‘as many different personality traits and skill sets within your team’, who have the ability to deliver, challenge each other and hold each other accountable. The broader your team, the more effective it will be in deciphering an attack and innovating your defences. “The risk is trying to create a togetherness across your teams, building a strong culture, which in turn reduces staff turnover,” Ryman says.

When it comes to recruitment, the likes of Ryman have long been looking to place the best candidates in the most suitable role, but in the modern day, there are many ways to hire someone.

“Around 73% of our technology employees have been hired via job boards in the past two years,” says Gray That figure includes advertisements that candidates have responded to, us using the tools to seek out the right CVs, or in some cases, us headhunting on LinkedIn. 18% have then been hired via referrals, and a small majority via agencies.

“Our training academy in the Engineering department is one of our most exciting hiring routes. We started the programme around eight years ago, which involves us bringing individuals in for a placement year during their third year of university. We then keep many of them on flexible contracts throughout their fourth year so they can return to work with us during the holidays, and many then join us permanently once they have finished in education. The programme has an extremely high success rate and has produced some of the most successful leaders within the business. One of our candidates now heads a team within managed services, while many have also gone on to further success across the business.”

The skills gap is often talked about; indeed companies invest and no doubt make a lot of money writing reports on the problem. Should we just expect a raft of more reports over the next however many years, or are we making progress?

Stevens says the longer-term commitment revolves around education and inspiring a generation. “Teachers, parents and educators need to be trained and properly informed about the digital infrastructure industry, the skills required and the opportunity the sector offers,” he says. “They can then engage with students to help them make well-informed decisions when it comes to looking at career options and picking subjects.”

Scratch the surface of a CV database and the chances are you will find far more males than females, but is that by design?

“The gender imbalance is not a choice for a lot of companies in the technology space, but an unfortunate consequence of having very few female candidates for the roles available,” says Gray. “The data tells us there just aren’t as many women studying technology-based subjects. The industry is doing a huge amount to try and overcome this, but it ultimately comes back to our schooling. Girls’ interest in technology needs to be encouraged from an early age so they consider studying subjects later down the line that will teach them and give them an understanding of the skillsets required for the various careers they may want to pursue in the future.”

However, you can only hire from the talent pool in front of you and enterprises must be in the right position to hire. Evan Wienburg, CEO, Truespeed says that for any company that’s growing fast, finding and hiring the right people is a constant challenge.

 “Since we secured a £75m investment from Aviva, Truespeed’s growth has accelerated,” says Wienburg. “As our teams are expanding we’re looking to bring in skilled people managers who have the right subject area knowledge plus the approach and experience to give our team a great employment experience. We also find that senior management roles can take longer to fill because we are looking for specific experience and skill-sets and are not based in the South East. We’ve welcomed some fantastic additions to our management team in recent months but we know this was good fortune and these are harder to source.”

For Farringdon, organisations often turn to external hiring to secure tech talent — and struggle to recruit people with the right skills — rather than nurturing the skills from within. “By focusing efforts internally, it can be much easier to identify skills gaps within teams and understand which individuals would benefit from training and closer development,” he says. “Naturally, this means that businesses can roll out new systems, complete projects and meet business objectives faster.”

So, the roles are there and so is the training. Let’s get on with it.