The future is digital, but we all know that. The economies of the future are being built around technology. AI, machine learning, big data, analytics, software engineering, IT, STEM (for science, technology, engineering, math) -- these are the jobs of the future. These are what today’s generations of students and young adults need to work toward.
We hear some version of these things all the time. And they’re true -- this is the direction the future is moving in. But these sentiments about the future overlook one key and worrying trend about the present: For an economy and a society that is supposed to be built around technology jobs, these jobs are increasingly lacking employees with the skills needed to support them.
This problem was crystallized by a recent study, which surveyed 100 chief information officers across the UK and found that large majorities of them are already feeling the pinch of a skills gap in IT:
- 78% are concerned about whether their IT talent will require upskilling;
- 76% are worried about recruiting the IT staff they need to remain competitive;
- 69% point to upskilling as something critically or highly important to their IT teams;
- And more than half fear the impact that Brexit might have on their ability to recruit people with the right tech skills.
With so many business and IT leaders admitting they’re struggling to ensure their IT teams have the knowledge and expertise to keep up with the pace of digital change, while simultaneously struggling with an ability to recruit new workers to plug these skills gaps, it begs the question: How do we plan for an increasingly digital future with a workforce that is potentially unable to succeed in it?
The hiring conundrum
When employees fall short of delivering on certain goals, or when it becomes clear that your employees lack a certain critical skill set the business needs to achieve a goal, the natural response is to go out and find somebody new who has that skill set.
So far, as the CIOs in this survey can attest to, that’s not working out so well. The Brexit factor is clearly weighing on business leaders. You can’t discount it when only one-third of UK CIOs say they’re actively looking to recruit from the EU to build up the skill sets of their IT teams. Especially when that marks a 20% drop from EU-centric recruiting efforts from 2015.
But, as problematic as Brexit may be for these UK decision makers, the problem runs deeper than Brexit. And it also runs deeper than just hiring for companies everywhere. That same survey highlighted some positive movement on diversity in IT talent, with two-thirds of CIOs saying they’ve recruited more workers from a diverse set of backgrounds than they had been doing five years ago, and 70% saying they’ve hired more women. Yet, while IT teams are becoming more diverse, that fact alone still hasn’t abated concerns about skills gaps.
Rather than looking outward to find fresh faces that can plug those gaps, businesses should instead look inwards at the talent they already have -- and what they can do to build on that talent.
Promoting a culture of continuous learning
You already have talented people working for you. After all, why else would you have hired them in the first place? The challenge facing leaders today may be a shortage of skills that can keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape of IT and digital disruption. But that doesn’t mean those workers lack the capability to learn new skills or improve on their current skill sets in order to keep up.
Consider the skills that your current employees have that new recruits or contractors wouldn’t: intimate knowledge of your team structures, your internal processes, your products, your customers, what you’re delivering to clients or end users, and the history of those product deliveries or user experiences. That kind of institutional knowledge is valuable, and something new hires will only pick up after a long period of time. By contrast, learning technical skills -- a new programming language, new algorithms, new data-crunching tools, new applications for AI -- can be picked up comparatively quickly.
What’s the leader’s responsibility on this front? Sending workers to industry conferences, where they can hear directly from pioneers and thought leaders in the field, or network and talk shop with their peers, is never a bad option. But it’s not enough. Leaders need to adopt an outside-the-classroom mentality to education, too. Like promoting trainings or holding in-house seminars with external speakers and experts about new trends to incorporate into their ways of working. This kind of work-based approach to transformative learning is the most effective way for imparting new skills to workers. Not only does it emphasize an approach of putting ideas into practice, rather than just teaching them, it also allows for maximum flexibility in tailoring unique approaches for how leaders can upskill their workers.
Perhaps most importantly, leaders should promote a workplace culture that puts a premium on asking questions. Encouraging workers to speak up when they don’t know something and elicit feedback or counseling from other colleagues and team leaders can, at the very least, create a more collaborative atmosphere that breaks down employee knowledge silos. That kind of information sharing also makes it easier for leaders to identify knowledge and skills gaps, so they can take concrete steps on addressing problems and finding relevant solutions for solving them.
Believe in your people
There’s no one silver bullet to resolving the IT skills gap. Industries and markets change at a faster-than-ever pace, and this is truer in technology more than any other field. Talented workers will always find themselves at risk of being passed by; and leaders will always need to contend with a workforce that, through no fault of their own, may find themselves initially unable to keep up with the changes around them. But these aren’t unsolvable problems. Just because an employee may not have the inborn skills to tackle a challenge one day doesn’t mean they completely lack the capacity to ever be able to do that.
Creating a spirit and environment of continuous education, which emphasizes the importance of continuing to learn and refine skill sets on the job, along with promoting those work-based learning opportunities, empowers everyone -- leader and team member alike. In the face of rapid change, it falls on the leaders not to abandon their talent for someone new, but to trust in their teams. Trust in their original instincts for hiring these workers in the first place and continue to make educational and training investments in their people.
Alex Adamopoulos has enjoyed a 30+ year career in professional services organizations encompassing management consulting through product engineering. As the founder and CEO of Emergn Global, Adamopoulo has instilled what he calls the Emergn Way into the organization, which centers on three core principles: care for and invest in people, be deliberate about delighting customers, and bring new perspectives to get better results. His defining work has been in helping enterprise companies adopt modern ways of working and accelerate the rate at which they improve and deliver their products and services.