Improving software delivery in every organisation

Digital skills shortage: what can we do?

The evidence is all around us: there is a shortage of digital skills. You only need to look at the ever inflating tech salaries and the array of benefits companies offer employees. Such offers are made in an attempt to get access to the limited supply of tech talent available in the market. We’ve got a problem and it’s only going to increase unless we do something about it.

What then can organisations do to address this shortage of digital skills?

Digital skills are in demand within every industry

With 55% of digital tech jobs falling outside the tech industry[1], it’s clear the demand for digital skills is ubiquitous. Couple that with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) definition of technology literacy: 32% of UK jobs are classed as digitally-enabled and 13% are digital tech jobs[2]. These are big numbers.

As each industry wakes up to the need to improve their technology game, to modernise and take advantage of digital, they struggle to compete in the talent market both in terms of salaries and the culture they have to offer.

It’s no wonder tech startups are busy disrupting long established organisations, they have the venture capital to pay top salaries and they have awesome startup cultures and modern technology stacks that attract top talent.

A polarised problem

On one hand, you have venture capital-backed tech companies paying top money for seniors. On the other hand, you see other organisations trying to hire experienced developers for junior salaries.

“Seeking junior developer with 5 years experience”

It’s common to see job adverts for junior developer roles that want 5 years of experience or to have experience in many different programming languages, frameworks and tools. The organisations that do this often do because they are limited by salary budgets but have big needs for digital expertise.

The opposite also occurs in venture capital funded startups and large organisations with more comfortable salary budgets. You see developers with minimal experience employed into senior roles. This is again caused because of a big need for digital expertise and compromises being made to meet hiring quotas.

I can see why this happens and I can also see why this results in poorly delivered technology. It’s tough to rationalise why engineers need to be paid so much more than other skills within the business, governments too struggle with this especially. The result though is hiring poorly skilled engineers, settling for less experience, or failing to hire.

It’s tough and fraught with disappointment all round. Organisations want and need experience but can struggle to attract people with the right expertise. Budding technologists can be chewed up and spat out by organisations as mismatches in experience and expectations are discovered.

What can we do?

Inverting the senior to junior ratio with coaching

Use your investment in senior salaries wisely. Create a coaching and mentoring culture within your organisation. See seniors as a multiplier for junior productivity rather than seeing juniors as reducing productivity.

By introducing coaching and mentoring expectations to the seniors within your business you create open learning cultures. Seniors become knowledge sharers rather than silos.

One place to start with this is introducing onboarding plans and buddying up seniors with new joiners and hold seniors to account for the development and onboarding. We publish clear expectations for all of our roles in our Handbook and our seniors are responsible for helping new joiners meet them.

We currently have an average of 1:1 ratio of seniors to juniors on our engineering teams. I aim to increase this over the next year, that is, increase it to a 1:2 ratio.

Run your own academy

A more advanced route to onboarding requires a little more investment up front. We’ve been running our own Academy since 2017. This year will see us onboard two cohorts of six Academy Software Engineers. We provide 12 weeks of training, during which we pay our learners a £25k salary, while they learn. They then get a raise to £30k when they graduate.

While running your own 12-week training programme may seem to be a big undertaking, particularly for SMEs, I can say from experience it works. We’ve managed to run our Academy with a mix of group workshops, a lot of pair and mob programming, some self-study and also a group project. We have actually run it to date with just one (very passionate) senior software engineer who has now taken the role of Head of Learning.

We’ve even open-sourced our learning materials to make it easier for others to run their own academies for Software Engineering roles. We’re looking to add materials for other digital roles in the future such as Delivery Management.

Provide inclusive access to digital knowledge

Why do we pay our Academy Software Engineers a salary rather than charge them a fee? Inclusivity. It’s the same reason we do not offer unpaid internships. They exclude those who cannot afford to not be paid and with such a shortage of digital skills in our industry, it’s very shortsighted to be creating exclusionary access to digital knowledge.

Do not exclusively hire from paid bootcamps. Not everyone can afford £8k to attend a 16 week training course. Okay, some provide scholarships and apprenticeships like Makers Apprenticeship, but not nearly as many as are needed. I was glad to see Makers introduce a financially inclusive option with their apprenticeship programme as they previously only had an academy programme that cost a flat £8k fee. Unfortunately the apprenticeship option is oversubscribed and I hope to see more organisations offer

You can also run mentoring networks by encouraging your team to mentor those looking to get into the industry. This pay it forward mentality also pays dividends. You increase your network of budding technologists proactively doing what they can to get into the industry. What more can you ask for than tenacity?

Train the digital skills you need

Organisations need to invest in growing their own digital skills. The market isn’t going to magically change overnight. Sure, digital skills need to be delivered through education and they are increasingly so, but that doesn’t help us today.

In lieu of society catching up with the demand for digital skills we have to address the supply of digital skills ourselves.

I’d love to hear from those already investing in growing their own talent, and also those looking to start their own journey of training the digital skills they need. Catch me on Twitter @lukemorton.

[1]: Source: ONS Annual Population Survey, Wave 4 2016, Waves 1-3 2017
[2]: Source: ONS Business Structure Database, 2017

About the Author
Luke Morton
Chief Technology Officer at Made Tech. Talk to me about delivering value through digital and technology, how inclusion and feminism can address a digital skills shortage, and on creating mentoring and coaching cultures.
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