What a difference six months can make. At the beginning of the year, the UK was celebrating its lowest levels of unemployment of almost half a century, a trend which was driving an ever increasing demand for talent. In fact, so high was the need for the right abilities that a lack of it was considered a threat to business prosperity - according to a PwC survey from April 2020, 74 percent of CEOs were concerned about the availability of key skills.
Then we had the pandemic. From expansion, businesses rapidly went into contraction, focused on maintaining core operational continuity. As more and more countries face up to a short-term reality of rolling lockdowns, whether nationally or regionally, employers are realizing that a return to pre-pandemic trading conditions are getting further and further away.
For certain sectors, that has meant redundancies and closures, even with furlough schemes and government-backed financial intervention. It has been brutal, to put it bluntly.
A digital light in the darkness
There has been one bright spot, however. It is clear that an organization’s ability to deal with the disruption of 2020 has come down to how much it has invested in technology and digital skills. Those that were further advanced in their digitalization journey have been able to respond faster, maintain revenue better, and safeguard their employees more effectively. One only has to look at how the likes of Amazon have thrived, recruiting thousands of warehouse operatives, to see how the more digital a business, the more likely it is to have a competitive advantage in the current climate.
However, it is not only ecommerce giants that have the monopoly when it comes to employee growth today. The demand for the development, deployment and integration of technology has led many business leaders to continue to recruit qualified, experienced digital talent, both as a means to operational continuity and in preparation for future recovery. In particular, demand for software developers has remained high.
It is clear that the technology industry, and its ability to transform both private and public sector enterprises, will be central to any economic recovery. However, that ambition could well be hamstrung by a lack of relevant skills. One only has to look at skills shortages in construction, a direct result of the industry constricting in the last recession, to see how a failure to train now could seriously damage hopes of a fast turnaround.
The time to develop talent is now
Yet if businesses do not have the resources to support training new talent, how will the sector create employees suitable for in-demand roles? Clearly current methods can not cope with demand, otherwise there would not be such a gap. Plus there are the restrictions around meeting in person, which need to be balanced with an awareness that many employees are already suffering from video-conferencing fatigue – how many more webinars can they take, even if it is to improve their skills?
Hacking the ideas of the future
What’s needed is a way that works for both employee and employer – one that gives the former an engaging experience while both showcasing and developing their skills, and allows the latter to track progress, identify new talent and see how individuals solve problems directly related to wider organizational needs.
A solution could lie in online hackathons. While traditionally physical events, the current restrictions would necessitate they go virtual. On the surface, this might seem like a negative – part of the appeal from an employer perspective would be getting to know talent in real-life. However, it also offers a significant opportunity to meet in real life, expanding the footprint and geographical reach of the hackathon and, as a result, growing the business’ potential talent pool.
That, however, is really a secondary benefit – the primary purpose of a virtual hackathon would be to come up with new ideas, through the sort of collaboration and innovation that only comes about through intense design sprints.
What’s more, they could be used to focus on how a technology could be deployed effectively. This would have particular benefit in helping enterprises unlock the potential of emerging tools like blockchain, which is still very much a fringe solution for most organizations. By gathering together teams of talented developers and technologists, and incentivizing their efforts, enterprises could use virtual hackathons as an effective idea generation machine. There could be cash prizes for the winners, as well as the opportunity for shortlisted efforts to be turned into start-ups that the enterprises could incubate and support.
For entrants, aside from the rewards and potential entrepreneurial opportunities, there would be the chance to develop their own skills and see how their approaches resonate with peers and potential employers.
There is a definite appetite for virtual hackathons across both the public and private sector, with a variety of organizations either hosting their own hackathon or providing sponsorship and support to joint efforts. The likes of HM Government of Gibraltar, University College London Centre of Excellence on Blockchain Technologies and law firm Mishcon De Reya LLP have all recently supported one such event, exploring blockchain solutions to the negative socio-economic impacts of Covid-19. In doing so, they are creating exactly the sort of mutually beneficial environment previously identified as a way of both developing the skills and the ideas needed to supercharge post-pandemic recovery.
Unprecedented turmoil needs unconventional responses
To combat such massive disruption requires an equally unheard-of solution. Enterprises that expect traditional approaches to solve the problems of the pandemic, or identify the talents needed to enable economic upturns, are likely to find themselves behind the competition in the near future. The likes of virtual hackathons may seem unconventional, but they are exactly the sort of breeding ground of ideas and talent development businesses need in order to equip themselves for whatever happens next.
Gaurang Torvekar, CEO and Co-Founder, Indorse