Contributing writer

6 ways UK CIOs can help to begin closing the IT skills gap

Jul 05, 2022
HiringIT LeadershipIT Skills

A shortage of qualified IT workers at a time of high demand has put many leaders in a nasty pinch – how can skilled professionals be replaced?

Bridging skills gap
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Skills shortages continue to plague the IT sector, causing UK technology job vacancies to shoot up by almost 200% since 2020, according to BCS.

Not having the right skills or team is the third biggest worry among senior IT decision-makers in the UK, with two-thirds of technology executives (66%) highlighting that their organisation’s digital transformation projects are being stalled due to struggles in recruiting IT professionals with the skills they need.

Cybersecurity is the UK tech sector’s most sought-after skill set according to the Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report, with 43% of respondents reporting a shortage, followed by big data specialists and analysts (36%), technical architects (33%) and developers (32%). Other in-demand skill sets include network engineering and devops.

Sadly, there’s no quick fix to the problem of tech skills shortages. With the biggest cause of IT skill shortfalls in the UK being a lack of STEM graduates coming through the education system, changes to public policy are key. However, there are steps that CIOs can take to begin easing recruitment challenges.

1. Change the perception of a career in IT

One of these is to work towards changing the general perception of IT careers and giving people a better understanding of how varied work in the technology sector can be.

“IT often has the perception that it’s solely focused on the lone ranger sitting in a darkened room responding to the bad guys. In terms of attracting talent, this may not appeal to those who’re searching for a career that’s people-focused and revolves around being part of a team,” says Heather Hinton, CISO of cloud-based comms company RingCentral.

“Roles in IT involve a range of interesting responsibilities including product development, technology architecture, useability, business impact, and risk management, which is why the industry must change its perception to attract new talent.”

Changing perceptions will also help address the lack of women taking on IT roles, as currently only 25% of skilled tech roles are held by women.

Research by Code Institute found that some women hold several misconceptions about careers in IT, potentially leading to them ruling it out as an option.

“The illusion out there is that tech careers are still reserved for mathematical geniuses. Women in particular, given the current representation within the industry, are largely missing out on having a peer group within the industry to help break this conception down,” says Jane Gormley, Director of Careers at Code Institute.

“We see multiple barriers – firstly, confidence that they can do it, but equally important, also a lack of belief that the tech industry will welcome them in. Entering the recruitment journey feels like running the gauntlet to many.”

2. Shout about your company culture (and why it’s such a great place to work!)

A little closer to home, culture and employer brand are essential to attracting tech talent. Therefore, CIOs should send a clear public message about their vision and tech strategy.

Tech talent is attracted to transformative organisations, as these individuals often have a strong desire to make an impact on business, people, and the environment. With this in mind, if CIOs wish to appeal to a wider talent pool, they must ensure they showcase the opportunities to make a difference.

“Candidates want to see that a potential employer’s tech strategy is supporting the business and enabling positive change ­– they’re excited to join organisations with purpose,” says Rachel Davis, joint MD of talent insight company Armstrong Craven.

“This takes an effective communication strategy. They want to see this through a dynamic online presence and at industry events. They want to see tech leaders and teams within the business promoting these messages too and they’re attracted to organisations with inspirational managers who are thought leaders. As a CIO, be on the speaker circuit, get involved in hiring and network, network, network.”

3. Cast a wider net

With a UK shortage of tech talent, it’s imperative that CIOs look beyond the traditional talent pools when recruiting.

Now’s the time to open your mind to those who’ve learned technology skills in their own time, or come from careers in different industries, rather than falling into the trap of insisting on the same qualifications from the same universities.

“There are a lot of great stories of self-taught programmers. As part of a hiring programme, we did for a big tech company, we introduced a previously homeless person to them. She had self-taught herself coding and they took a leap of faith and brought her on board,” Davis says.

Hybrid and remote working also supports the widening of an organisation’s talent pool. For example, organisations can now consider candidates based much further afield. Hybrid working also delivers the level of flexibility that women with young families need, helping to open tech jobs up to a larger number of women.  

4. Improve diversity and promote inclusion

A diverse workforce provides a wide variety of benefits and yet many minority groups continue to face barriers to joining the technology sector.

For example, 65% of Black students and professionals questioned by Colorintech and Meta said they have and continue to encounter barriers getting into their tech career of choice.

The research found that huge, persistent racial inequalities still exist and that 30% of those surveyed said they can’t – and don’t want to – be their true selves at work and believe they must hide their personal views, values, and attributes in order to fit with those of the company.

More than half (56%) also said they didn’t feel empowered to negotiate their salary and would settle while their peers progress.

“The findings show the experiences for Black talent is vastly different from their counterparts. It’s up to companies to be intentional and systematically remove these barriers to ensure they’re not limiting their talent pool and recruiting the best people out there,” says Dion McKenzie, co-founder of Colourintech.

With this in mind, CIOs must do more to improve and promote inclusion within the tech sector, supporting everyone from people of colour through to neurodivergent and disabled people. This will again help widen the talent pool available to them.

5. Upskill and retrain existing staff

Your existing workforce is a great source of talent that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many Millennials and Gen-Zs are interested in working in the tech sector but feel it’s too late to join, while it’s often mistakenly assumed that older employees will struggle with new technology.

The reality is that these individuals provide CIOs with an excellent opportunity to fill their organisation’s skills gap internally, and this is something that more and more executives are taking advantage of.

“We’ve found that over half of digital leaders increased the amount of cross-training and upskilling for their staff over the last year. This makes sense. Investing in and developing your own people builds engagement, loyalty, and career fulfilment,” says Rhona Carmichael, Harvey Nash’s Regional Managing Director, Scotland, UK North & Ireland.

6. Engage with the next generation of talent

A great way to ensure your organisation becomes a destination for young talent is to engage with schools and colleges and promote technology careers through special programmes and events.

This can help spark their interest in a technology career early and help bring more skilled individuals into the sector. This is something that’s desperately needed as between 2015 and 2020 there was a 40% decrease in the number of UK students studying computing or ICT qualifications at GCSE or A level.

Skills sharing initiatives can also make a big impact, says Mike Hook, Executive Director of LMG.

“A noteworthy example of this is the industry partners helping to deliver the first-ever secondary school data centre curriculum in the UK – the Digital Futures Programme. This educational programme for 14 to 19-year-olds focused on the digital infrastructure and data centre industries, empowering people on the cusp of entering the workforce.”

“Delivered through workshops, projects and challenge days, the programme also creates a pathway to work experience and apprenticeships.”

Indeed, apprenticeships and graduate schemes are also a great way to train new recruits with the skillsets your business needs.

More than half (52%) of those questioned in the Nash Squared report said they expect to increase apprenticeships over the next two years. This is more of a long-term fix, however, because it will obviously take time before an apprentice is able to take a significant role in key projects.

“In the long term, investing in growing and nurturing your own talent is vitally important,” says Carl Austin, CTO of technology and engineering consultancy BJSS, which has its own engineering academy for early-career individuals, supporting them with full-time learning followed by hands-on skills development on projects.

“When taking on these individuals, it isn’t just about teaching a language or single skill, it’s about giving them a broad functional understanding of concepts and principles. It’s about providing them with skills in teamworking, communication, presentations, and lateral thinking.”

“What you end up with are people who’re flexible, adaptable, motivated and capable of taking on multiple roles in any tech stack, which is of course an important long-term vision.”