Could tech skills shortage actually be good for diversity and inclusion?

As the global war for tech talent heats up amid a changing work landscape and push for hybrid working, what impact will this have on how businesses recruit tech roles and will it increase diversity?


If recent statistics from Dutch multinational human resource consulting firm Randstad are anything to go by, the global tech skills shortage has reached new levels of desperation. According to Randstad, 45% of IT managers would rehire someone they had previously fired. Imagine the embarrassment.

As Adrian Smith, senior director of operations at Randstad UK points out, “by hiring someone you have fired - rather than someone who has just left the organisation - not only are there the obvious problems associated with trying to operate alongside someone who didn’t work-out the first time round, there’s the added risk of annoying ambitious people who have stayed with you - nudging them to leave in protest.”

It doesn’t feel like a solution to the perennial problem of technology sector skills shortages and as Bain suggested in September last year, “the war for technology talent is getting fiercer and spreading to new fronts as demand for crucial roles skyrockets.”

Those crucial roles are, perhaps unsurprisingly, cybersecurity experts, big data analysts and technical architects, at least according to Harvey Nash’s Digital Leadership Report, which claims the latter role has replaced AI skills in the list.

“We found that more than two-thirds of digital leaders globally report being unable to keep pace with change because of a lack of expertise, the highest it’s been since our research began,” says Bev White, CEO of Harvey Nash Group. “This may present a greater challenge for those who are planning radical changes to their business model. Globally, the top three sectors planning for a major transformation are Broadcast/Media (73%), Telecommunications (68%), and Technology (63%).”

White adds that demand for developers has seen the biggest upswing compared with previous years, something that was also recently highlighted by REC and industry data, which found that shortages of programmers and software developers are the third most acute of all roles, behind only HGV drivers and nurses.

Changing tactics

“The talent is out there - it’s just harder to find,” adds Smith from Randstad. You could say that has always been the case but what is increasingly clear is that while the talent may indeed be out there, it is not necessarily ready-made for the roles that are most in demand. The talent may not even be in the same country.

As Bain says, “the tech talent war is global, cross-industry and a matter of survival,” and we’ve known for some time that countries have been using Visa schemes to attract skills. The UK’s Tech Nation Visa scheme, for example, has, according to Tech Nation, “received applications from over 4,200 people from 90 countries,” with India supplying 33.3% of those applications.

Tech Nation also suggests that where talent comes from will continue to shift dramatically. The report adds that most talent (60%) will come from E7, or emerging economies (according to Oxford Economics, 2021), only reinforcing the importance of migration, and effective migration systems. The fastest annual talent pool growth, it adds, will be in India (7.3%), followed by Brazil (5.6%), Indonesia (4.9%), Turkey (4.7%) and China (4.6%).

What is interesting is that between May 2014 and January 2022, 23% of all UK Tech Visa applicants were female. In percentage terms it’s an increase on the female-to-male ratio working in tech in the UK and may go some way to improving diversity in the industry. However, the numbers are not huge. There are over a million tech vacancies and the Visa scheme, although significant, is not going to solve the skills gap problem.

However, it should help with both ethnic and gender diversity but the fact that the majority of UK tech workers are still men suggests businesses are missing a trick. According to a CompTIA UK Tech Industry and Workforce Trends 2021 report, nationally, women represent approximately 49% of the UK workforce but just 17% of tech occupations. By comparison, in the United States, women represent 26% of tech occupations.

What hybrid working during the pandemic has done is show managers that there can be an alternative way to fulfil roles, that remote working can enable inclusion. Hybrid working broadens the pool, both in terms of geography but also in terms of social factors and of course perspective in problem solving and innovation.

White at Harvey Nash agrees. She believes gender diversity in tech will turn a corner this year citing UK ONS figures that 150,000 jobs have been created for women over the last two years.

“As we move through the post-pandemic reset period, we expect this trend to continue as hybrid working delivers the level of flexibility that women with young families have required for a long time,” says White. “Not only has the pandemic created more opportunities for women, but greater diversity has also made technology teams more effective. Investment in diversity programmes has a clear commercial, as well as equality, case.”

That message is taking an age to reach tech leadership. As Tech Nation pointed out in its report last year, “there is still a large gender and ethnicity gap within tech companies and a lack of investment given to diverse founders.” Partly as a result of this, there is also a lack of diverse role models, a problem that impacts teenagers and graduates looking at their career choices. This is something UK site Diversity in Tech is trying to address through case studies, training and advice for both candidates and employers.

This is important. As the site suggests, role models are key but so too is the idea that millennials in particular, regard a diverse workplace as an important factor in where they work. For businesses to really get to grips with the ongoing tech skills shortages, diversity has to be seen as not just a tactic to fill roles but to also enhance the workforce. By looking beyond more traditional methods of recruiting and by looking beyond traditional working practices, organisations can start to plan projects with more confidence, knowing that they will not be held back by skills shortages.

As Jon Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD says; “In the lead up to the pandemic much of the developed world was going through a period of low unemployment. In the UK we saw the employment rates increase for traditionally marginalised groups, such as older workers and workers with disabilities. If shortages persist then this is likely to continue to boost diversity as employers work harder to attract a wider pool of talent outside their traditional recruiting pool.”

Attitudes have to change and there are signs of recognition at board level that diversity has practical as well as reputational benefit to businesses. A recent Harvard Business Review article included an interesting stat about equity, fairness and inclusion. Whether it’s race, climate change or Covid vaccinations, the research identified a change in CEO attitudes, noting an increase in mentions during earnings calls of 658 percent since 2018.

Small steps but is that enough? Not really. Not if businesses want to confront increasing tech skills gaps, attract and retain talent and enjoy the business benefits of being a diverse employer.