How a talent shortage is hampering IoT development
Training and Development

How a talent shortage is hampering IoT development

While investment in the Internet of Things (IoT) is set to reach over $1 trillion by 2020, according to IDC, the need for IoT skills may just hamper this growth. In fact, according to a Canonical report, 68% of businesses still struggle to hire IoT experts. The latest Tech Cities Job Watch report from Experis showed a 35% increase in the demand for technology skills since this time last year, as businesses look to harness the power of IoT.

 

Demand for IoT skills grows

The Tech Cities Job Watch report noted that IoT has massively increased the number of connected devices and has exploded the volumes of data businesses have to process and as a result, big data roles are important to delivering success on IoT. The report found that businesses were willing to pay for such skills, with big data professionals commanding by far the highest salaries and day rates of any other technology discipline analyzed. They command average salaries of £70,945 [$99,587] in the UK – a 3% rise on last year and 54% higher than Web Developers (£46,154 or $64,895) for example.

Since connected devices also create many more vulnerabilities to cyber threats for businesses to contend with, security skills are also in demand, the report found. There has been a 24% increase (year-on-year) in the demand for IT Security contractors. Businesses are urgently plugging short term security gaps and using contractors to train up existing employees across the business and are shifting focus to this more flexible contractor model for IT security in response to the demands for IoT. In contrast to the contractor spike of 24%, there has been a 10% drop (year on year) in demand for permanent IT security staff.

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While demand continues to grow, the shortage remains. Research from PwC and the Business Higher Education Forum shows a startling gap between educators and business executives when it comes to getting graduates ready for IoT and tech jobs. The study has significant implications for workforce preparedness and the US economy: by 2021, 67% of US executives expect to choose job candidates with data skills over those without – yet only 23% of educators believe their students will graduate with these essential tech and analytical skills.

PwC believes the lack of a fully analytics-enabled workforce is putting the United States’ economic health at risk, and has decided to commit $320 million over five years to close opportunity, education and skills gaps that impact the communities where we live, work and do business. The commitment is aimed at reaching those disproportionately impacted by these gaps, like women and minorities.

According to PwC, business demand for analytical talent continues to grow, but the US workforce does not have the data science skills needed to support it. This is especially true for women and minorities, who are less likely to enter data science fields.

In the United Kingdom, there is a similar growing demand for these types of skills. James Milligan, Director of Hays Digital Technology, has seen demand for skills in IoT increase across a variety of sectors including construction, transportation and local government. He believes that 2018 will be the tipping point for IoT as demand continues to increase.

 

Multi-disciplinary approach required

Canonical’s Tom Canning emphasizes that the talent challenge in the IoT is not down to a lack of a specific skill, but a lack of professionals with the required combination of IoT skills. “Our research found that the majority of IoT projects needed experts skilled in data analytics and big data, embedded software development, embedded hardware, IT security and cloud software development,” he says. Close to half of those interviewed also highlighted AI and automation as necessary skills for the IoT.

Geoffrey Taylor, Head of Academic Programmes at SAS UK & Ireland, believes that a multi-faceted approach is needed, bringing together industry, government and educational institutions to address the sector needs. For Taylor, the skills needed in IoT run the gamut from robotics and engineering to computing, data science and analytics, and networking.

“I have a big beef about people and universities talking about data science in the singular.

“Data science is a very complex matrix of skills and disciplines. IoT is no different to high-performance computing or real-time analytics in the sense that it is providing input at scale with the prospect of instant feedback and building up a broader picture of whatever is being measured.”

He says that while British universities have a strong tradition of providing skills in those individual areas, they need to adopt a more multi-disciplinary approach to integrate skillsets across courses.

“The perception is that if you just appoint a clever graduate, he/she will be able to know about all of these things at an equal level competence, but those kinds of people, the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, are rare beasts indeed,” Taylor says.

Taylor’s role at SAS sees him engaging with higher education and government to work on delivering the kinds of skills that the sector needs. “Universities need to understand that they are not equipping a student for the real world of work by teaching them pure statistics. Statistics don’t happen in a vacuum. They are part of very complex systems and graduates need to understand the environment.”

Taylor believes there is a need for courses to integrate core modules in data in all its complexity, so that graduates understand how modern businesses need platforms such as SAS platform to manage the complexity, and in analytics. “Every single manager has to know about data and understand it,” he says.

Taylor adds that companies looking to recruit into the IoT space should not see university graduates as being a sole source of talent, but need to take a matrix view of what is going on in the world of education. He points to the potential for such skills to be developed through on demand education such MOOCs and the Open University, although that presumes a capacity for self-study that not everyone is gifted with or has time for.

He is also a proponent for the apprenticeship programs in UK and Scotland.

 

New era for apprenticeships

Since May last year, the government has imposed an apprenticeship levy on every business with more than 100 employees in the UK. Companies like SAS and its competitors are paying into a levy fund with the ambition to have more than a million apprentices within the next five years. Current figures place apprentices at half that.

Taylor has been involved in helping to set up new types of apprenticeships and setting up new standards for apprenticeships in data science, data analytics, digital and more.

“Historically, in this country at least, apprenticeships have had a fairly low key low status in people’s perceptions, unlike in Germany or the central European countries, for example, but that is changing,” he says.

“Those apprenticeships are going to be delivering a hugely increased capacity in terms of the skills required for the IoT. Companies like Accenture and Deloitte are investing very heavily in data science and digital apprenticeships,” Taylor says.

“They bring in graduates and apprentices into their businesses. Apprentices take slightly longer, a couple of years longer than graduates to get up to a certain point of competence. When they get to that point they can bid for other jobs and roles in the business and, by all accounts, apprentices are by far the better candidates. They are more motivated, more loyal and they know how to put their heads down and combine theory and practice in a way graduates are sometimes challenged with.”

Apprenticeships have been expanded to include degree programs, so that while a candidate is doing his/her apprenticeship, she/he can get a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree.

Taylor adds: “I think these are going to start delivering the kind and volume of skills we need in the IoT space because there are so many different varieties, that they will fill that whole spectrum of skills that I was talking about earlier.”

Milligan notes that some companies such as those in construction are looking to retraining or reskilling employees to move into IoT. “A couple of significant organizations are piloting this in some areas of their businesses to see if they are able to take existing staff who know the business and the culture and skills them with the required skills in IoT,” he says. “Most of them, if they are coming from engineering background, most will have the underlying competencies. It’s a good strategy.”

Successful IoT projects also require the definition and proper orchestration of new business processes to accurately reflect the needs of the business – both short term and long term. “Professionals need to understand the device lifecycle and extended requirements to ensure future-proofing any IoT investment as device lifecycles can span five to 10 years in certain markets,” Canning adds.

Canning notes that IoT ‘Full Stack’ (end-to-end) developers are also very hard to come by, and even harder to hold on to due to a competitive job market that has made it difficult to hire and retain IoT skills in-house, and has forced some teams to turn to outside consultation for their IoT development and deployments.

“For both hardware and software requirements, there are a multitude of excellent off-the-shelf solutions available, much of which are built on open source software, giving time deprived development teams more flexibility to work with the skills they do have in-house and be effective in completing their IoT projects,” he says.

Canning says that to address the talent shortage, Canonical is seeing projects proceeding at a slower pace, defining and testing proof of concepts to ensure that a team has the skills required to deploy and manage scale. “There’s also been a move towards simplifying the development process, making it easy enough for anyone in an organization to manage, monitor and use IoT devices and their software,” he says.

By implementing an operating system that can be used from the edge to the cloud, a unified solution allows DevOps, support and security engineers the ability to integrate required IoT processes and operations much more quickly and safely into their workflow. “The use of new and standardized application packaging can help promote reusability and distribution of IoT applications, updates and version controls, which is a new skill set for certain developers and can help them further develop their skills,” he says.

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John Morrow, partner in executive search firm ON Partners, believes that on the business end of IoT you need an evangelist who can simplify an often confusing and disjointed understanding of the technology and its benefits, not necessarily someone with IoT experience specifically. On the technical side, he says, aside from someone with direct IoT experience, core skills involve a combination of hardware, networking, software and mobile, so someone who can check all of those boxes would be the ideal candidate.

“The talent shortage occurs when you don’t pragmatically unwind the objective into necessary skills,” Morrow explains. “Depending on the project, someone with experience in hardware, networking, software or mobile can be an effective IoT contributor with experience in just one of those disciplines within a ‘master’ IoT initiative. More and more companies are building these competencies in-house. As with any nascent industry, the off the shelf options tend to be one size fits all. It can be more valuable to bring those skills in-house and customize them to better suit specific needs until there is more widespread standardization in the IoT industry.”

 

Find the balance

Milligan says he is seeing positive change in trying to grow skills needed for IoT. “It will take time to build out a more diverse workforce and it requires more open-mindedness from employers.” He says that the employers looking to reskill their employees are in the minority. Most companies are looking to hire in skills from outside. “More immediately that manifests itself as either using contractors – who have the skills but they are commoditized and there is a high daily cost – or bringing in nationals from outside the UK or even the EU where they can bring the skills in rather than invest in upskilling either an existing member of staff or a graduate and train them up.”

Manfred Kube, Head of M2M Segment Marketing and Director Business Development mHealth at Gemalto, says that organizations need to balance the development of in-house skills with a strong partnership strategy, and also consider their approach to bespoke deployments. “In areas where highly specialized expertise is required, such as security, partnering with third parties who already have the desired expertise will allow organizations to push forward with their developments while ensuring all potential vulnerabilities are taken care of,” Kube says.

The introduction of new roles in this space, such as the IoT Architect and IoT Engineer, will help companies discover the best way for them to tap into the IoT market. This is especially important now given the financial opportunities – the IoT monetization market alone could be worth over $440 billion by 2022.

Gemalto has started to see big players from different vertical markets starting to bring IoT skills in-house. For example, Kube points to Volkswagen, which created a new company called Cymotive dedicated entirely to cyber security within the connected car ecosystem. “As the IoT continues to establish itself as a mainstream proposition among consumers, we’d expect to see others embark on similar projects,” Kube says.

In addition, Kube believes that organizations should also consider the IoT deployments they want to build, and consider whether bespoke development is really the best approach. In order to plan a successful deployment, it is crucial to recognize that each use-case is not the same: for smaller scale projects, opting for a partially pre-designed and pre-certified endpoint solution instead of bespoke development can result in significant savings, both in terms of costs and time.

Kube says this is particularly true in fields such as predictive maintenance, remote monitoring, fleet management or building management, where existing devices or machinery can have connectivity added relatively simply with IoT Terminals.

Johan den Haan, CTO of Mendix, believes there are a variety of ways that enterprises are looking to address the skills shortage. The likes of Google and Apple compete to have the best benefits, salaries, and innovative work spaces, but for companies in other industries such as insurance, financial services and higher education, who are looking to take these skills in-house, competing with Apple and Google to attract talent is not a realistic option.

Den Haan concludes: “Upskilling current employees, along with the implementation of platforms that allow for business users to collaborate with veteran coders and developers isn’t just a more attainable goal for organizations building out their IoT team, it’s a way for them to optimize the work load among existing talent.”

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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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