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It's time to rethink the technical skills gap

The repeated assertion that there’s a technological skills gap is clearly getting nowhere. New research and statistics ostensibly reflecting the opinions of industry leaders are becoming as common as the cycle of new students entering and leaving HE institutions. And there’s a contradiction – as Tech Republic asked earlier this month, ‘if there’s a tech skills shortage, how come so many computer science graduates are unemployed?’ 

It’s a complex situation, but it’s far from ‘a mystery’ as Matthew Gould, Director General for Digital Media at the Department of Culture sees it. The problem actually lies with two key misunderstandings that have largely grown out of a political and intellectual culture whereby instrumental value holds valence over just about anything else. The first misunderstanding is the reductive way in which technical skill and knowledge is viewed. There’s a common fallacy that to be technically skilled a student simply needs relevant training. 

To put it somewhat crudely, according to this view, there is a checklist of skills to be learned, components to be understood, and once this is complete, the student will become an important part of the wider technical workforce. 

Operative word - Training

This sort of training is important – but the operative word here is training. Good training doesn’t necessarily make you a good problem solver. And ultimately businesses need problem solving skills. That’s true whether you’re writing marketing copy or building machine learning systems. Exacerbating this is the nature of the software and technological landscape – because change happens so quickly and new tools become available, training alone isn’t enough – you need to be able to keep up with these changes, understand why they’re happening and what they mean. 

That way, individuals can make informed decisions about what they should be learning and what will be most valuable to what they – or, indeed, their business – wants to achieve. This then leads us towards our second misunderstanding – a misunderstanding of exactly what technology is and how it fits into a wider scheme of problem solving that is absolutely central to business (or, for that matter, just about any creative human activity).  This second misunderstanding is more fundamental. Indeed, to see technical skills in the reductive manner described above is to partake in it. The fallacy here is to see technology and software as tools through which value is created by the simple fact of using them. 

This constitutes a blind spot, both on the part of business leaders, and possibly even on the part of educators in technical fields, whereby, the vast horizon of problems, goals, objectives that inform the way anyone uses a technology remains ignored. If people can’t see that, then the training people have will be worth very little.

Business and academia on different pages

The problem, then, is how technical training fits into the wider scope of education. We appear to have arrived in a situation in which businesses are asking for industry-specific skills, while universities, under-resourced and under pressure to demonstrate their ‘impact’, are more than happy to develop curricula that will deliver perfectly polished graduates. But business is always unhappy with the results – prospective employees don’t have the analytical and critical skills that are much more difficult to cultivate than technical skill.  

It’s ironic that while huge investment is going into STEM education, the skills that businesses really value, such as critical thinking and an analytical mind – in spite of the noises being made – are those most commonly associated with the humanities. After all, technology is something that happens in a world of human interactions and meanings. 

That’s not to say that we should reconvene the academic culture wars, but we need to recognise that taking a purely instrumental perspective on higher education and technical training doesn’t lead to immediate economic success.   

Technology changes quickly

A good example of what’s going on can be seen in the University of Singapore. According to a report in the Times Higher Education, big data is being used to identify skill requirements from the wider business world and then being used to develop hyper-relevant curricula. The University’s president, Tan Chorh Chuan, told the THE that the data allows the university to “more systematically” identify “supply-skills demand mismatches in Singapore,” and work to “help fill some of these gaps”. It’s interesting that the university plan to use this data help to shape all of its undergraduate programmes in the future. 

The THE quotes Professor Harry Lewis, Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, as saying that “a student can be trained in the latest technologies, but if they don’t have a deeper reservoir of basic knowledge they are not going to be able to adapt quickly and flexibly as the technology changes.” 

Essentially, what is needed is that intellectual and critical sharpness that will make technical professionals flexible and adaptive. It’s about ensuring that training is something ongoing, which sits alongside smart decision making and strategic thinking about what’s important. That’s true for individuals developing their careers and businesses too who want to empower their developers to deliver maximum impact. 

Training critical, analytical students

These are problems that our team think about a lot at Packt, and work to solve. We know how important training is to software professionals working in a hugely diverse range of roles – and we know that skill development isn’t something that ends at graduation. Skill development should be ongoing, responsive to what’s important at any given moment.  It’s often this question of ‘what’s important’ that is the most difficult to anyone to answer. 

That’s why Mapt isn’t just a repository of content, it also has an extra layer of curation. We look outwards at what’s happening across technology at every level, from individual projects to higher level trends and innovations, so our customers can make informed decisions about what is important to them and what skills will be most valuable.  We’re never going to manage the tech skills gap by aligning universities and business. 

Instead, we should be aiming to develop students who are critical, analytical, and well prepared to develop themselves so they can innovate and remain creative with new software as it emerges.

Richard Gall, Communications Manager, Packt
Image source: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

Richard Gall is Communications Manager at Packt.