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Covid-19 could exacerbate an existing shortage of computer science graduates. What does this mean for IT leadership?

Talent
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Kirill Wright)

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic started in early 2020, many were worried about the disparity between the number of unfilled computing jobs and the number of computer science graduates available to fill them. With Covid-19 changing the face of work and education, that skills gap has the potential to widen even further — turning the worry into a pressing need that CIOs and IT executives must address.

Last year, there were around 700,000 open tech jobs in the U.S., according to an estimate by IT trade group CompTIA, and according to 2017 data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, there were only around 72,000 computer science graduates across the country ready to fill them. With college students facing the worst job market in over a decade, many are reevaluating their education options and finding that a traditional college degree might not be the right path for them after all.

In fact, one survey by internship service CareerUp found that 28 percent of U.S. college students are considering a change in career path, and a report from higher education marketing agency SimpsonScarborough shows that 1 in 5 U.S. high school seniors are not planning to go to college at all. In both cases, these numbers are likely to go up and not down as a result of Covid-19, meaning there will likely be fewer computer science graduates coming down the pipeline over the next four years or more.

This could present a major problem for the tech industry. But it doesn’t have to.

Why new skills pipelines are necessary

Although the number of computer science graduates will indeed decrease, that doesn’t necessarily mean the number of people with the necessary digital skills to fill tech roles will decrease as well. In fact, this group of people could actually increase during Covid-19 and beyond.

Unlike many other areas of the economy, the technology industry is still booming — and actively seeking new talent. This makes it an attractive pathway for students beginning to consider their future careers or looking to start in a new direction. For many, however, the path toward a career in technology won’t include a four-year degree. Instead, it will consist of nontraditional learning characterized by remote learning and self-taught methods.

If tech leaders handle recruiting and hiring correctly, it could be an opportunity to narrow the skills gap rather than widen it. To achieve this, however, they will have to adjust hiring practices and where they source talent.

A major reason the tech industry has had such a persistent skills gap is that most companies still look primarily to computer science degree pipelines to find and recruit digital talent. While talented workers with relevant skills can indeed come from these pipelines, we’ve already discussed that they might be fewer and further between in the near future. But many skilled individuals also come from nontraditional areas, such as coding boot camps or self-led online programs. Still, very few leaders or recruiters look at those pipelines.

With a major shortage of new computer science graduates looking increasingly likely, that need is more pressing than ever. Companies will have to get creative with how they find and keep talent if they want to remain competitive.

Remote hiring is a boon — not an obstacle

As counterintuitive as it might sound, now is the perfect time for businesses to work on revamping their tech hiring practices. One advantage of the tech workforce is that its work can already be (and often is) performed remotely. That means there is no need to wait to go back to the office before hiring new tech talent.

Far from being a hindrance, remote work can actually attract a wider variety of candidates who prefer the flexibility of working from home. In fact, according to a report by getAbstract, 43 percent of full-time employees in the U.S. now want the option to work remotely, even after the pandemic is over. Meanwhile, Deloitte reports that half of Millennials and 44 percent of Gen Zers around the world cite flexibility as a major factor in choosing where to work.

Having a remote work infrastructure already in place, then, is one more selling point for a business looking to attract top talent. There’s no reason for tech companies to wait until things go back to normal before they change how they hire — and in many cases, the changes that have occurred because of the pandemic are here to stay.

Now is the time for industry leaders to push forward, modernizing not only the pipelines they pull from, but also how they onboard and train new talent.

Nontraditional training will become the new norm

If nothing else, this pandemic is the wake-up call CIOs and IT leaders need in order to transform their training and hiring. It is going to be hard to sell students on paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to sit in their parents’ basement and learn on Zoom — especially when there are other paths that are more affordable, just as effective, and better suited to remote learning.

Tech companies should view this as a good thing. These solutions lead to candidates with determination, passion, and an aptitude for learning on the job. They also open up the tech industry to a wider array of qualified individuals who might not have been able to afford a traditional four-year college degree but are still ready and willing to do the work. Candidates with a wide variety of work backgrounds and life experiences can bring with them transferrable skills you would not generally find in a fresh college graduate.

There is no better time to ditch your old credential requirements and start looking for other training programs to invest in. Major companies (think Apple and Google) have already refocused their hiring policies around searching for the right skills rather than the right degree. That’s because they know the tech skills gap can’t be filled by wishing more individuals had computer science degrees. Instead, it’s filled with hard work and the people with the right skills for the job — regardless of the path they took to get there.

Jeff Mazur, executive director, LaunchCode