Closing the Blockchain Skills Gap

The demand for blockchain engineers has never been greater in the UK. According to a new report from job site Hired, the past year saw a 517% increase in open positions listing blockchain experience as a desired qualification. But this exponential rise comes as no surprise to industry observers.

Over the last six months, industry heavyweights such as IBM, Amazon, Facebook and Samsung have introduced blockchain services of their own in recognition that this new technology will play a dominant role in shaping the future of service delivery. As a result, these companies need talent capable of implementing blockchain solutions and, as Hired’s report suggests, this is where the problem lies.

Simply put, there is a dearth of talent with meaningful blockchain expertise. Just 11% of UK businesses expect to employ an adequate number of qualified technology professionals this year, and the number of companies that can recruit the right blockchain-ready professionals is even lower. The future of business depends on companies fulfilling both technical and non-technical roles — i.e. both architects of blockchain solutions and those who can understand and align the technology to business objectives.

Alarmingly, the skills gap will only compound itself unless industry and academia work together to equip today’s students with relevant blockchain skills and expertise needed for tomorrow’s tasks. The next five to 15 years will usher in a blockchain revolution felt across sectors, but unless collective action is taken now, future products and services are likely to languish.

Striving for Positive Change

Today, over 40% of the world’s top 50 universities offer at least one class that includes curriculum on blockchain or crypto assets. While this is a step in the right direction, such classes are usually offered as add-on modules designed to enhance existing coursework in law, engineering, mathematics and business administration. To truly close the skills gap and seed a viable future workforce, universities around the world must introduce more courses that situate blockchain and digital assets within real-world strategic business contexts, specific to each industry.

However, this expansion and integration is unlikely to happen without the industry’s guidance and active collaboration regarding what is most needed from blockchain educators for student success in the future world. The good news? There is already work underway to form highly productive and collaborative relationships between industry and academia that will bring about real change.

For instance, Ripple launched its University Blockchain Research Initiative in 2018 to support the development of curricula — including launching new and expanding existing courses – for students pursuing work in blockchain, cryptocurrency, digital payments and related topics. In a little more than a year, the program’s first wave of 33 participating universities has collectively launched 26 blockchain-specific courses and undertaken more than 100 research projects on an expansive range of topics involving blockchain and digital assets.

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It is this level of commitment and interaction from companies and universities alike which is needed to produce demonstrable, sustainable change and help close the skills gap while simultaneously driving innovation in real-time.

Raising Awareness and Increasing Partnerships

New research asserts businesses are not making cross-sector collaboration a priority, further hampering overall efforts to develop blockchain knowledge and skills as a result. In fact, Bloomberg and Workday found that just 38% of businesses are working with academic counterparts to shape future technology curriculums.

Businesses would be wise to rethink their “wait-and-see” posture toward academia.

While blockchain and cryptocurrency are relatively new ideas with fewer business use cases than existing, more prevalent technologies, these trends cannot continue if we are to systematically develop future blockchain talent and drive the industry forward. Consider the role company-university partnerships played in shaping whole industries based on what are now viewed as “conventional” technologies that were once misunderstood. With this in mind, it’s clear such collaborations will be instrumental in determining the future scalability and viability of blockchain and digital assets as business drivers and value creators.

To foster collaboration, more work needs to be done to increase awareness around how blockchain can be used and developed — and the impact it will have on society. As part of this, it’s critical to embrace blockchain as an open and ‘democratic’ technology; it does not have — nor require — a ‘central hub’ for talent like other emerging technologies. Those looking to deploy and work in blockchain can be based anywhere in the world, so there’s a dynamic new opportunity to reach far and wide and embrace a diverse talent pool.

Morgan State University in Maryland is doing just that. With financial support and mentorship via its partnership with Ripple’s UBRI, MSU — one of America’s leading Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) — hosted its inaugural HBCU Blockchain Summit which brought together 34 other HBCUs. The summit encouraged debate about blockchain’s challenges and opportunities and how cross-sector collaboration is a fundamental requirement in preparing a diverse workforce for the technology challenges of tomorrow.

Meanwhile in the UK, some of the most ambitious collaboration can be found at University College London, where the Centre for Blockchain Technologies was developed to foster open dialogue among industry players willing to share their resources and expertise. UCL’s pioneering centre also acts as a neutral thinktank providing consultancy services to industry members, dedicated knowledge-transfer activities and cutting-edge research. Excitingly, a number of its programmes are aimed at executives, and 57% of those who participate have more than 15 years experience in the industry.

Preparing for a Blockchain Future

According to Gartner, blockchain’s value-add to business will exceed $3.1 trillion by 2030. Therefore, the opportunity is ripe for organisations willing to transform their products and services to capitalize on this generational opportunity. However, this potential cannot be fully realized without industry and academia working together to educate and prepare the next generation of blockchain talent to close the ever-growing skills gap.

So, as the new term approaches, universities and businesses alike should be asking themselves: “How can we help our faculty and students prepare for the arrival of blockchain and digital assets?”

Ken Weber, Head of Social Impact, Ripple

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