Speaking at DTX Manchester about AI ethics, we inevitably talked about training and skills. It was a privilege to meet and talk with many other experts in the field. Thanks to James McGough, Managing Director of Imago Techmedia, for the article below. Find out more from Sue in conversation with Proctor & Stevenson as part of their Women in Business series

How to recruit, retain, nurture and reward the best and brightest digital tech talent

Bridging the digital divide

The coronavirus pandemic has hastened digital transformation across the board. Simultaneously, the war on tech talent continues to accelerate at pace. Industry body techUK estimates that there are now 100,000 unfilled tech vacancies across the country every month. With this shrinking talent pool comes significant economic costs with industry analysts estimating the UK economy to lose £6.3 billion annually.

The preponderance of data, cyber security, AI and automation projects should tempt the most eager job seekers. Yet, the gap continues to widen. The pandemic didn’t help claims a BT report The Future in 2021, highlighting that digital poverty has amplified with remote working exposing a deep skills divide. Businesses seek workers with digital expertise whilst candidates seek employers who will invest in their future and train them. Underlining a big disparity and an even bigger elephant across the ethernet – Digital Inclusion. 

Throw in the Great Resignation and top it off with an ‘aging skills deficit’ the imperative to act now and bridge the digital divide has never been more critical.  Success in this new dynamic will require a fully integrated approach to curricula, competencies, and training

Shifting the power

Founder of AI Governance and headline speaker at Manchester Tech Week, Sue Turner OBE is a huge industry advocate of inspiring tech passion through the delivery of ground-up initiatives in disadvantaged communities. Believing that the UK has the potential to be at the forefront of the digital revolution, Sue reaffirms that the tech future will belong to everyone and won’t be the preserve of the digital elite.

Calling for organisations to shake up their CSR, Sue says the yawning chasm of the digital divide will only be addressed if people are encouraged to invest in their future and remove the stigma that keeps people shut out of the conversation. “By 2024, 80 percent of all tech products will be designed by people who are not tech specialists. Regardless of the role you are in now, chances are you will be influencing the tech products of the future. That’s really exciting and motivational.”

Although digital literacy is embedded in most academic environments, digital diversity and inclusion are at the heart of tech innovation affirms Katie Gallagher, MD at Manchester Digital. Enriching knowledge and lifelong learning forms the bedrock of digital confidence, helping to address inequalities in learning opportunities throughout life.

Manchester Digital, the North West’s independent trade body for the tech and digital industry, runs a number of programmes that address these very issues. Specifically, the importance of diversity, which is benchmarked at 95 percent by businesses as important in Manchester Digital’s 2022 Skill Audit. The organisation’s programmes like Digital Her and their three Level 4 tech apprenticeship courses enable people from different and diverse backgrounds to enter the tech and digital space and create a more level playing field. Over the long-term, this also helps to close the talent gap and make recruitment easier, suggests Katie.

Julia Bateson, Head of Apprenticeships at Techskills agrees that blended learning solutions should be offered. Solutions that facilitate personal growth and give existing employees the opportunity to retrain within a business or via digital apprenticeships which foster greater engagement and addresses future employability challenges.

“There’s a general misconception that digital talent in the tech space exists in abundance. This is far from the truth,” exclaims Julia. Evidenced by an analysis of 9.4 million UK job adverts in 2021 indicating that 77 percent of all openings now request basic digital skills. Yet, according to the annual Consumer Digital Index a fifth of the UK population don’t possess the essential digital skills for life defined by the Government’s Essential Digital Skills framework[i].

“People of all ages are needed. Solving this talent pool crisis requires a joined up future plan and collaborative investment in resources,” observes Julia Bateson, adding that nurturing talent leads directly to heightened loyalty and retention.

Cultivating this collaboration cannot be achieved in isolation, notes Julia. Tomorrow’s strong pedigree of digital talent will be drawn from a diverse cross section of society. SMEs, in particular, will need support to ensure that they aren’t overlooked, she highlights, pointing firms towards campaigns run through the Education Landscape Initiative and the DfE.

Levelling up

Apprenticeships are an increasingly popular route into tech. This strategy remains fundamental to the levelling up agenda where the central aim is to increase pay, employment and productivity in every part of the UK.

Despite best efforts, since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, there has been a 36 per cent decline in the number of apprenticeships taken up by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Additionally, SMEs have struggled to meet the financial commitments required. However, as Julia flags, large businesses that pay the levy can opt to transfer up to 25 percent of their funds to other smaller businesses. Thereby supporting non-contributing employers and giving everyone access to digital apprenticeships.

The positive outcomes associated with increasing digital skills are countless. Including, but not limited to, employability, job security, equality, earnings, health and wellbeing and community engagement. As testament, 2021 results compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) revealed that 92 per cent of Tech Industry Gold degree apprentices achieve a 1st or 2:1 and attract 10 percent more women and 9 percent more BAME graduates than computer science.

Maintaining this healthy digital talent pipeline and career readiness requires engagement throughout the educational sector and all industry stakeholders.

Challenging ‘Digital Age’ attitudes

Atypical hiring routes should also be considered, suggests James Heggs, Chief Technology Officer at TechReturners. Purging ageist misconceptions so mis-embedded in our society and ensuring no talent is omitted is key. Interestingly, equal access to technology and making sure ‘no one is left behind’ forms part of the new 2030 Sustainable Development of the United Nations blueprint.

Like the purported Big Quit reported post-pandemic, the persistence of these biases continues to steer people towards the negative, suggests James. He, like many others would much rather see ‘Human Enablement’ become the hallmarks of our digital work culture, with flexibility deeply rooted in the ‘new normal’ framework.

Adapting to this environment during the pandemic has reshaped what many businesses previously deemed inconceivable. Admittedly, working this way does require a different muscle memory. Much of which can be addressed through digital tech. Equally, compensation packages need to re-thought to now factor in everything from work-life balance, team camaraderie, coaching, pay and rewards.

Several patterns have already started emerging. Employees still want to know that their workplace has their back and cares, claims James Heggs. He believes that this can have the biggest impact on retention. “Despite all the positives, the remote and hybrid world can be isolating. Introducing intentional team check-ins and group synchronisation activities can help address the desire we have as humans for social connections.”

Given the recent inflation rises, competitive wages remain a clear priority as a recruitment and retention tool. Especially in developer and software engineer roles. Yet, career progression (at 63 percent) has started to supersede salary (59 percent) as benefits of importance, according to Manchester Digital’s 2022 Skills Audit. 

That said, wages frequently reflect the specialist nature of areas within the digital tech space and how parched the talent pool is. Male, stale and pale is how Cyber Security Inspector and technical trainer and mentor at CompTIA Gary Fildes describes the aging skills deficit and a historic lack of diversity in the industry, though current UK Gov initiatives such as the Skills Digital Bootcamps and CompTIA Cyber Ready are positioned to address the shortfall in both skill-set and diversity.  He suggests that employers need to take a more realistic stance and be prepared to break the ceiling on pay, for the right people, with the right attitude, as quality skills and a committed, passionate and skilled individuals never come cheap!

Live and let learn

Having tested the waters of remote work throughout the pandemic, Gary draws particular attention to workforce moral and the psychological toil caused by months of default virtual meetings and cognitive tech overload. “Homeworking, mental health and longer working hours has inevitably prompted many professionals from all sectors to reset priorities. Tech fatigue has set in. As in-person operating models and induction onboarding resumes, employers must continue to invest in making their team feel heard and valued. Concurrently developing flexible work arrangements that underpin that utopian work-life balance.”

Whether it is working as a digital nomad, or signing up to a free course, Sue Turner OBE fully endorses the benefit of drawing upon life experiences and if it feels right making a career pivot. Living by the ancient Chinese proverb that ‘Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere’ Sue encourages people to stop self-censoring and constantly seek out new opportunities and skills that spark a personal interest.

Reinforcing that there’s no way employers are going to recruit or headhunt their way out of the global digital skills gap, Sue points towards the proliferation of free and inexpensive resources. “Whether the personal motivation is leisure or pleasure, to broaden horizons, improve professional skills or become a tech expert in your company, as industries look for ways to attract and retain the brightest tech talent, actively seek out and grab the abundance of in-house and external learning opportunities.”

In today’s digital world, lack of access should never undermine the inclusiveness efforts. Ultimately, as each of the informed contributors to this article will testify, success in the digital era requires a breadth of tech, analysis, coding, cyber, business and soft skills. With such a shallow pool to pick from, smart leaders need to weigh up whether they build or buy this talent in. Both require significant investment underpinned by an integrated approach to curricula, competencies, and lifelong training.

Thanks to James McGough, Managing Director of Imago Techmedia, the organisers behind Manchester Tech Week.

[i] https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/POST-PN-0643/POST-PN-0643.pdf

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