From education to employment

The onus is on employers to address tech talent pipeline struggles

As the COVID-19 pandemic put pressure on the economy, some employers were forced to cut down on staff. As a result, unemployment for young people increased by 13%, with many students seeking work experience as an alternative for full-time jobs. As young people increasingly face the pressures of finding a job, coupled with a lack of confidence in their skills, employers too are facing a confidence crisis within their line-up of future talent – not least within the expanding tech sector. 

There have been reports of a surge in university applications this year, showing that the effects of the pandemic has potentially reversed the downward higher education trends of previous years. But this begs the question, is this reversal good news for employers? Does it signal a positive shift in young people’s motivation to pursue higher education, or simply expose a lack of confidence in other routes? As university applications rise, the pandemic substantially impacted apprenticeship starts, which declined by almost half. Although these are beginning to revert to pre-Covid levels, they are unfortunately failing to reach the ambitious figures that the government hopes for.

The tech skills deficit

The tech skills deficit is a perpetual issue for UK employers. Despite the boom in technology-driven organisations, companies struggle to hire young employees with the skills needed to slot into roles quickly and confidently. Universities are not equipping graduates to make the leap into work, while apprenticeships lag in popularity.

The result is that significant resources are spent by employers upskilling young professionals, who themselves have invested heavily in their education to find that it is not always fit for purpose. This is a problem that has been recognised not only in the technology sector but across industries. Despite a fall in applications to universities from British 18-year-olds in the last decade, many young people are still encouraged to focus on a university degree as the route to a successful career. Skills-based study, such as apprenticeships, continue to lag, even though they are based on work-ready training principles that are so vital for employers.

However, as Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, recently mentioned, “we hear from many employers that apprentice training routes deliver an increasingly important source of talent.” Similarly, industry group techUK recently warned that despite more of its members now offering apprenticeships, ‘technology innovation is accelerating faster than the pipeline of people available to fill the gaps’.

The pandemic has only accelerated the need for specialised technical talent and on-the-job experience. Apprenticeships can help narrow the technical skills gap either in place of or alongside traditional paths for further education via university and college.

Employers must take responsibility

If employers want young people to start work confidently, they need to play an equal part in facilitating that journey – long before their new starter arrives on their first day. If employers want to assist in closing the skills gap, they have to take responsibility for engaging young people long before they make their HE decisions.

The pandemic has only amplified this need. As the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) recognises, ‘employability skills have overtaken academic achievements as the most important way to improve young people’s prospects of securing a good job. Key to acquiring those skills is practical insight into the world of work that can be accessed through work experience.’

For example, companies like IBM, A&O and HCL are offering post-A-Level students the opportunity to gain niche technical skills from an early age. IBM has announced a roadmap with more than 170 new academic and industry partnerships to make this a reality.

However, with any such initiative, employers must understand the skills they need to grow and innovate, not just focus on the skills of today but be ready for those of tomorrow. Foresight and understanding of future technologies, trends and capabilities are vital in building a solid talent pipeline. This is not an easy task and requires specialist insight that can provide a holistic view of the organisation’s needs alongside the broader trajectory of the industry and the current and future educational landscape.

Such an approach is evidence of an organisation’s true culture of learning. Not only offering continuous skills-building and development opportunities to employees but also to future talent. Understanding future skills requirements and engaging young people in developing those skills and experiences prior to employment isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. It should be considered a business imperative – a preventative strategy to ensure a lack of skills doesn’t jeopardise future growth and resilience.

Not only that, but it is the right thing to do. Evidence suggests that apprenticeships undertaken by young people are associated with significant benefits for individuals, employers and the wider economy. With the financial cost of continuing higher education, apprenticeships open the doors for an entirely new pool of candidates that may not otherwise meet qualifications for certain technical careers. You can teach skills, but you can’t replace individual experiences — and the more diverse perspectives businesses can acquire, the better.

Attracting potential apprentices early on in their educational journey can help sow seeds in fertile minds, both preparing them for the real world of work, and showing them the many possibilities open to them. The UK tech sector is reliant on future talent, and if businesses want to reap the rewards of fresh talent, they must be prepared to invest in the groundwork. This means no longer being dependent on universities and colleges to prepare students but rolling up their sleeves and tending to their future employees.

By Alexia Pedersen, VP of EMEA at O’Reilly

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