Digital skills shortages remain an obstacle for the UK

What is being done to address the UK's skills shortage, what still needs to be put in place, and how is the current climate impacting digital skills provision?

For more than two decades, a lack of technical expertise has fuelled skills shortages across the UK, according to a comparative analysis of the professional jobs market by The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo). APSCo compared data from similar studies in 1999 with research from The Edge Foundation in 2019 and found that digital technical skills shortages had significantly hampered business in the UK over the 20-year period.

The Edge Foundation study found that as much as 51% of employers have been forced to leave a role open because there are no suitable candidates available, and that tech job vacancies are costing the UK economy £63 billion a year.

Ann Swain, Chief Executive of APSCo, said in a statement: "While the specific skills that employers are seeking have changed dramatically over the past two decades, the fact that talent gaps continue to be aligned with technical competencies suggests that we need to do more to boost Britain's digital capabilities. As this data indicates, for the past 20 years we have been playing catch-up - and we must break the cycle if individual businesses, and the wider UK economy, are to fulfil their full potential."

This seems to be echoed by similar studies. Salesforce commissioned a survey that polled employees on retraining and what skills are needed for the future. The findings are clear: digital skills will play an important part in the success of global Britain according to 67% of respondents. Yet, 56% of them feel pressure to retrain to respond to the pace of digital transformation in the workplace.

Low unemployment but high demand

Peter Linas, EVP of Corporate Development and International at Bullhorn, explained: "The UK's job market has seemingly reached a bit of an impasse - on the one hand, unemployment is at a 45-year low, but on the other hand, demand for specific digital skills remains high. A significant proportion of the UK's digital talent pool is already in employment, and they won't necessarily be tempted to move jobs on a frequent basis.  As a result, it's now more important than ever to maximise the potential of existing talent through reskilling - and this refers to both current and future staff members."

According to Bullhorn's Global Recruitment Insights and Data (GRID), the majority (77 percent) of staffing and recruitment professionals concur that this is an effective way to address skills shortages.

Virgin Media Business' Executive Director of Commercial Marketing, Rob Orr explained that from entry-level hires to the C-suite, being tech literate is now central to every job description - no matter the industry or sector - in contrast with the labour market two decades ago.

For Eva Murray, Head of Business Intelligence at analytics database, Exasol, there are two main factors which are contributing to the skills shortage - speed of innovation and a lack of training. "The tech industry is at a point now where innovation and advances in technology are happening faster than skills can be developed. Unfortunately, schools and universities have not been able to keep up the pace to date with lower numbers of students studying STEM subjects."

AI, Data Science skills in demand

Sector-specific roles can see even greater skills shortages. According to new research from SnapLogic, 93% of US and UK organisations consider AI to be a business priority and have projects planned or already in production. However, more than half of them (51%) acknowledge that they don't have the right mix of skilled AI talent in-house to bring their strategies to life. A lack of skilled talent was cited as the number one barrier to progressing their AI initiatives, followed by, in order, lack of budget, lack of access to the right technology and tools, and lack of access to useful data.

Carmine Rimi, AI Product Manager at Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, said that, according to recent reports, with millions of AI focused roles available, there are only 300,000 professionals able to fill them. "This makes it easy for skilled developers to increase prices for their services," she said. "While developing the automation strategy, there are two ways for businesses to address the internal skill gap: invest in AI experts or train existing staff."

Maureen Norton, Global Data Scientist Profession Leader at IBM, said: "With a lack of technical expertise costing the UK economy £63 billion per year, it's crucial to consider the core areas where businesses are currently experiencing a digital talent shortage." Norton said that IBM is seeing a heightened demand for data science talent, particularly as making sense of exploding datasets is critical for driving business value.

"However, as the field evolves at an incredible speed, organisations can be left struggling to identify, train and retain data scientists - especially given the disparity in the experience and skills that individuals can have across the profession," she said.

"While there are a variety of ways to obtain data scientist skills, being able to apply these to solve real business problems is the ultimate test. There is now a global professional certification for Data Scientists which helps to ensure consistency, compliance, and service quality across the board."

Recently, The Open Group announced the availability of its industry-first data scientist certification programme. For the fourth consecutive year, data science has ranked #1 in the top 50 job roles across the US - and demand in the UK is increasing too. With the ongoing explosion of data, this is not altogether surprising - across the globe the ability to interpret and analyse data to solve key business problems is increasingly identified as an essential component for growth.

The data scientist certification programme was initially brought to The Open Group by IBM, before being worked on collaboratively with other members of The Open Group. In January 2019, IBM became the first accredited organisation to offer the data scientist certification.

Non-traditional training, non-traditional recruiting

"Ultimately, this allows companies to not only identify the best candidates for highly valuable roles but also equip them with the tools to provide a better path for career progression - meeting the skills shortage head on. This certification is earned by applying data science skills - no matter how they were obtained - to projects that solve real problems and drive tangible results," Norton said.

She added that when it comes to expanding the candidate pool and bridging the digital skills gap, talent is being developed in non-traditional ways. To foster rising talent who are in school or who have some university experience but have not completed a degree, there is a strong focus on "new collar jobs". There are now apprenticeship programmes to help these students become data scientists by enabling them to build their knowledge and obtain new skills. "This approach will work to broaden the talent pool and open up significant career opportunities for young people coming from non-traditional backgrounds," she said.

Rachel McElroy, chief marketing officer at Cranford Group, also believes that, in addition to non-traditional training approaches, the answer perhaps lies in a move towards less conventional resourcing models, particularly in sectors where talent is in short supply.

"The gig economy provides the chance for people to choose when and where they work, or how they use their skills. If a cybersecurity specialist is hired as an independent contractor or freelancer for example - instead of a full-time employee - it may offer them a level of flexibility they would otherwise struggle to achieve. This type of work is becoming increasingly common and a highly sought-after situation for individuals with in-demand skills," she said.

McElroy advised that HR managers - and the businesses they represent - therefore need to look beyond the traditional workplace infrastructure, especially when seeking people with the most competitive CVs. "It is important to acknowledge that some individuals now want to work in varied locations and/or from project to project. They seek the fluidity that comes with contract roles as opposed to permanent positions - they can complete one exciting assignment then move on to the next. And they know that such jobs sometimes offer more attractive remuneration packages and a favourable work-life balance."

The low uptake of STEM courses is a significant cause of the skills gap. "Governments and business need to work together identify the causes and address the problem - for example, by facilitating STEM work placement schemes or supporting businesses to create digital and STEM apprenticeships," Orr said.

"We need a tech literate workforce able to understand innovations within the cloud, big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as software engineering, data science, digital marketing and customer experience experts." But, Orr added, merely understanding technology is not enough by itself - these workers also need to be prepared to adapt to rapid change. "The speed of innovation isn't going to stall, so it's vital modern workers have the ability to learn quickly, incorporating new technologies."

Leon Adato, Head Geek at SolarWinds, believes that partnering with the education sector to offer coding workshops, mentoring programmes, and specialist courses is essential to helping students better understand the career opportunities IT presents. SolarWinds launched an apprenticeship scheme with Edinburgh Napier university last year.

"IT increasingly requires an array of skills—not all of which can be fulfilled if we're only hiring from a pool of Computer Science graduates. These critical skills will come via multiple career routes—something we recognised when we launched the apprenticeship," he said.

Murray said, though, that there are positive signs of improvement. Exasol analysed GCE A-level from the last ten years, and it revealed that Computing entries have seen the biggest change of the STEM subjects - an increase of 173% in five years. Entries in 2018 were almost three times the number in 2013 - up from 3,758 to 10,286. Training is clearly rising and many of these students will graduate within the next few years.

"Inspiring the next generation of talent to take up STEM careers is critical to plugging the skills gap in science and technology. STEM-related jobs are outpacing all other industries, and with Brexit in play, the importance of these jobs for the UK economy is even greater," Murray stressed. "While the graduate data shows positive signs that we may be closer to plugging the skills gap, this is no time to rest on our laurels. Leading companies will compete to attract employees with the right blend of skills and to drive meaningful transformation projects."