Why the “IT skills crisis” isn’t what it seems
Tue 12 May 2020 | Simon Ratcliffe
What exactly is driving the IT skills crisis? Simon Ratcliffe, Principal Consultant at Ensono, searches for the source
Whatever the company, whatever the sector, there’s one phrase at the top of the agenda for every IT director: the ‘skills crisis’.
Undeniably, the crisis is a very real problem for IT, with significant consequences for the competitiveness of UK businesses and the economy at large. Recent Cloud Industry Forum (CIF) research starkly illustrated this problem, revealing that 40 per cent of organisations believe their efforts to implement digital transformation are hampered by a lack of staff and skills.
As the coronavirus emergency develops, these skills challenges are set to aggravate further. Mainframe operations, in particular, may be put under pressure, creating issues for mission critical workloads like on-premise SAP.
Needless to say, businesses need to address the skills crisis at its root? But what exactly is the root?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the cause of the skills crisis is not, despite the name, a shortage of skills. Certainly, this is the popular view. But the fact that many computer science graduates are never hired into the industry is proof enough that this issue is not strictly about the limited pool of IT skills in the general population.
Ultimately, there are three primary forces at play here that each contributes, in its own way, to the skills crisis as we know it.
The recruitment problem
The first relates to recruitment. IT recruitment has always been about box ticking; a company will decide they need a capability in ‘x’ programme and will try to recruit people to match that required skill. Recruiting decisions are made based on who fits the mould.
This might seem like the logical approach, but it’s certainly not an optimal one. For one thing, by hiring only those who conform to certain skills criteria, businesses restrict themselves to a very limited pool of talent. In doing so, in effect, they create a skills crisis out of thin air and restrict the flow of quality professionals into the industry. Good IT professionals, it’s worth remembering, come from all walks of life. Some of the best come from “non-traditional” backgrounds and degrees like music or history.
Narrow-minded hiring policies also harm digital transformation. This is a process which depends upon diverse teams who think differently, capable of challenging and bouncing off each other to think creatively about how to tackle the problem before them. Selecting hires based on one ideal mould results in a stagnant team who all think alike.
The culture problem
Most businesses already have the skills they need in the building; they’re just exceptionally poor at recognising and making use of those skills. In large part, this is an issue of culture. Businesses need to get much better at building a productive culture and internal structure to allow skills to flourish, and crucially, become embedded in the business.
Even just small, incremental changes can help to build a more dynamic culture for teams in an organisation. Allocating ‘free time’ for brainstorming and side-projects – like Google’s famous “20% time” which brought us Gmail – is one useful proposition. This gives people scope to experiment and be creative in a more informal setting, perhaps exchanging ideas with a colleague they rarely speak to or thinking how to use technology more innovatively.
An even more ambitious step is to innovate away from hierarchical team models entirely. An interesting approach here is ‘holacracy’ – a model which reduces the emphasis on status, hierarchies and job titles, replacing these with a decentralised structure of self-organising teams. Each team consists of ‘equals’, ready to collectively solve problems when they arise, with everyone bringing their different personalities and strengths to engage with the problem in different ways.
At a time when critical IT skills may be spread thin across organisations due to illnesses and working from home policies, hours structures may also need to shift – for example, allowing early risers to work early and ‘night owls’ to work late. At a time of significant pressure on IT infrastructure, spreading out the burden on the system is no bad thing.
The education problem
The third and final cause of the skills crisis is, of course, education.
Currently, IT education in schools still focuses on the absolute basics: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and so on. For a generation that is digitally native and already familiar with these programmes, this kind of curriculum is disappointing and pitched far below where it should be.
Education, particularly at secondary level, needs to go much further to reflect the work that actually goes on in the industry. For a start, there has to be greater emphasis on coding. Even for the students who won’t end up working in or with technology, these kinds of skills are incredibly valuable – developing students’ deductive thought and rational thinking, and providing an avenue for creativity.
A rethink of IT
While there is irrefutably an IT skills shortage, the causes of this shortage aren’t what the industry assumes.
Poor computing education in the UK has unquestionably not helped matters. Nevertheless, the ‘skills crisis’ is still a mostly self-inflicted problem. The crisis owes a great deal to poor hiring policies, as well as poor recognition and utilisation of existing skills. Rectifying this scenario requires nothing less than a complete overhaul of the industry’s approach. Organisations need to bring in the right people – not just people who look like the right people – and then give those people the freedom and collaborative culture to do great work.