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Be the change you want to see: time to close the gap between employment opportunity and need

(Image credit: Shutterstock.com / Pressmaster)

Everyone agrees that technology will continue to exert a major influence over the future of society in general. Never before has this been more evident than at the moment, with the Covid-19 pandemic inadvertently acting as a catalyst for organisations globally to boost their digital transformations. Many are only able to continue operations and stay connected through technology in order to ‘keep shop’ in this strange new world. However, drilling down into some key employment issues, it’s clear that we are still training more managers than technicians. Where are the specialists who can provide practical, hands-on skills and expertise in their role? Take a development such as Artificial Intelligence alone. We will soon have to deal with that in all parts of society, but there are relatively few people in our country who really understand it.

The need for more specialists is perhaps most urgent in the cybersecurity industry, where there is no shortage of evidence that the problem is both widespread and of significant impact. Looking at the global picture, it’s an industry that has become a victim of its own success, with growth so fast that research (1) from Cybersecurity Ventures says it will see 3.5 million unfilled positions by 2021. And, according to the security certification organisation, (ISC)2, the shortage of those sought-after cybersecurity professionals ‘has never been more acute’ (2). It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that a Gartner survey (3) revealed that 61 per cent of organisations admitted that they are struggling to hire security professionals.

Part of the problem is the unavoidable need for specialists’ skills, with employers looking for candidates with just the right level of security experience, education, and abilities. Yet, how many people are out there on the jobs market with more than a few years of solid cybersecurity experience behind them? Not enough, is the simple answer.

This is not just an inconvenience for employers – the economic impact is very real. According to the consulting firm, Korn Ferry, in its report ‘The Global Talent Crunch’ (4), the US technology market as a whole can expect to lose out on $162.25 billion in revenue by 2030 due to skills shortages. As a result, ‘these talent deficits may imperil America’s status as the global tech centre’. So, what is the key driver behind this predicament?

The STEM of the problem

The reasons why we find ourselves in this situation are varied, and clearly, it’s not easy to predict the rapid rise of an industry like cybersecurity, but we can look to our education systems as a root cause behind the wider shortage of tech specialists. STEM education, for instance, is an extremely important source of supply into the technology workforce. Yet, not only do we see a continual shortage of STEM expertise coming into the industry, but a continuing gender imbalance. This is a particularly egregious issue and serves only to underline the need for systemic and cultural change.

UK government data, for example, shows (5) that in 2019, one million women were working in STEM occupations – that’s a mere 24 per cent of the core STEM workforce. However, looking at the tech sector specifically, the situation gets worse, with women in tech only making up 16.4 per cent of that industry in 2019 down from 17.4 per cent in 2018. As the community interest company, WISE, put it in their report (6) on the issues, “the proportion of tech roles filled by women has flatlined at 16 per cent since 2009 – so further action is needed to encourage more women to get into a category of jobs which make up a quarter of the STEM workforce.”

Yet, addressing the problem presents an obvious win-win. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (7), “Closing the gender gap in STEM would contribute to an increase in EU GDP per capita by 2.2 to 3.0 per cent in 2050. In monetary terms, closing the STEM gap leads to an improvement in GDP by €610 – €820 billion in 2050.” In addition, their report says that STEM equality would have a major impact on employment levels, with total EU STEM roles rising by 850,000 to 1,200,000 by 2050.

In practical terms, the issues of skills shortages and long-term shortcomings in our education systems present serious problems for companies. In response, some train technicians themselves, but that costs a lot of money that cannot easily be earned back. For an average SME entrepreneur, for example, an investment of tens of thousands of pounds in new employees can’t easily be budgeted for.

As a result, businesses look beyond their borders, with one option being to outsource work to other countries or bring in foreign specialists. That in itself brings advantages of working in multicultural teams, and people from other cultures often view things from a different perspective, which can lead to important insights. The question is, of course, why other countries have the skills that are in such demand. This could be partly due to the fact that those countries have a better tech environment. But, with UK immigration rules set to change, the situation is becoming more uncertain – at least in the short term.

The technology skills gap provides a challenging situation that will continue to cause problems for employers. Furthermore, in light of the current situation around Covid-19, it will also mean that countless talented people miss opportunities for fulfilling careers as many organisations’ recruitment drives are put on hold. However, looking to a (hopefully not too distant) future where many important careers are based around specialist knowledge, an ongoing emphasis on proactive change offers the best prospect of balancing employment opportunities with need.

Svenja de Vos, CTO, Leaseweb Global