How do we meet the challenge of digital skills recruitment?

using a computer

Written by Zoe Amar, FCIM, Director, Zoe Amar Digital

I’ve heard from a lot of leaders recently that recruitment is keeping them awake at night. Finding the right people for the right jobs is hard, and the challenge is particularly acute in tech.

According to the BBC there were more than two million  tech job vacancies in the UK in 2021, more than any other area of employment. And FutureDotNow’s latest report revealed that over a third of the UK’s workforce cannot  complete at least one task in each of the 5 skills categories  in the Essential Digital Skills for Work.

What can leaders do when their organisations are struggling to fill tech roles? 


Understand the nature of the challenge

Increased tech adoption during the pandemic and ‘the great resignation’  have contributed to the recruitment challenge. A recession could ease things for employers. Yet the state of the  tech labour market is just one facet of a bigger, long term issue. 

The Learning and Work Institute’s 2021 report revealed that the numbers of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. Meanwhile demand for emerging tech skills like AI, cloud and robotics is soaring amongst some  employers. Despite coding being critical to these areas, research from  data analytics firm KX found that 43% of students are not learning this subject in schools.

It’s positive that government committed to increasing  digital skills training in the Levelling Up White paper, and to looking at what future skills will be needed in schools. However, these developments  will take a while to bear fruit.  

The current digital skills recruitment challenge  is part of a systemic, long term issue with the UK’s digital skills pipeline. Basic digital capability is set to become the UK’s biggest skills gap by 2030.  Employers. schools, colleges, universities and government all have a role to play in reversing this, otherwise it will be a recipe for economic and national decline. 

 Lizi Zipser, executive director at Blue State advises employers to play a long game.Thinking long term with recruitment can be painful when you need to hire people urgently, but it may also mean that you are more likely to stick it out for the right candidates.  She says, ‘ Even if an organisation has the funding for multiple new digital roles, they may know that recruiting for those simply won’t be possible, or will otherwise take many months or even years.’


Reskilling is as important as recruitment

Even big brands are struggling with hiring digital talent.  Tiina Hill,  Head of Delivery for Single Digital Presence for British Library, is finding the market challenging because technical specialists are in high demand. However she feels that there is potential to upskill the arts and culture sector with dedicated training courses, at all levels. ‘In order for organisational change to happen around digital transformation, it requires approaching it from both top & bottom, ensuring that senior leadership teams are digitally literate and that there are also digitally skilled staff in organisations,’ says Hill. 

This highlights  the need for succession planning. What happens when your organisation loses an expert who you’ve become dependent on? As part of reskilling we need to plan how to nurture the digital leaders of tomorrow, and support them to develop the confidence and skills they need to step up. 


Work on your employer brand and employee experience

You can put your organisation in a better position for recruitment by developing your employer brand, ie your proposition for potential employees. What can you offer them that will differentiate them from your competitors, such as learning opportunities, a more inclusive environment or the chance to contribute to your organisation’s social impact? 

Gathering insight from your current employees about their experience will help you keep developing your brand so that the two things are consistent. 

Edwina O’Hart, Head of Communications and Engagement at The Centre for Digital Public Services, based in Wales, is monitoring this carefully. ‘We are running regular sentiment surveys and temperature checks  with contractors and newly appointed staff to gain a deeper understanding of their needs and if the job has met expectations, ‘ she explains. ‘This will really help us with our next tranche of recruitment.’

Treating your employer brand as a product, which you need to continuously test, learn and improve on, is not only a good way to keep your tech recruitment fresh and relevant to candidates but also a brilliant way to engage employees and understand their motivations. 


Look for transferable skills

As part of my research for this piece, I came across leaders who were hiring and training up candidates with relevant skillsets, rather than direct experience. 

This matters because what we are seeing in the tech labour market now is bigger than a recruitment problem. It’s also a diversity problem. 

Wincie Wong, Head of Services Workforce Technical Capability at NatWest points out that currently women represent only 24% of those studying computer science, 17% of IT specialists and just 11% of working engineers. In response,  NatWest established an engineering reskilling programme in partnership with Code First Girls, who provide free coding courses for UK women. Shockingly, the latter’s research shows that there will only be one qualified woman for every 115 new tech roles by 2025. 

Wong explains, ‘The Code First Girls partnership helps us address gender and ethnicity inequality in software and data engineering through introductory coding classes and nanodegrees for women. So far, we’ve taught over 2,000 women in the community to code for free, with 42 enrolling in our 13-week nanodegree programme, specialising in either Data or Software Engineering. 100% of the women are “career switchers,” (librarians, personal trainers and lawyers to name a few), with 69% of the placements from underrepresented ethnicities, and 16% who describe themselves as neurodivergent.’

The lesson from this is to look for people with relevant skills, who you can train up into digital roles. 


Take care of your current team

With digital skills at a premium, retention matters as much as recruitment. Anecdotally, it’s great to hear that more employers have been managing their workforces as communities since the pandemic began. The most engaged of these will have high levels of trust, psychological safety and belonging. 

Claire Reynolds, Director of Transformation at the charity Changing Faces, offers her team support and flexibility. This reflects an organisation wide approach to understanding the whole person and their wider lives. She told me, ‘They’re all brilliant at their roles and deliver great results, so I don’t need to know how time will be ‘made up’ if they have an appointment or need to pick a child up early. I’m also quite open about my own work/home commitments and juggles.’ 

Empowering staff makes them feel connected to their roles,which is reinforced by their role in Changing Faces’ impact. Reynolds’ team helped develop the theory of change and framework to measure the impact of the charity’s new strategy, and their digital planner traces all of their activities back to either its goals or its key enablers. This kind of approach creates powerful and inclusive  collective leadership. 

Deepening your colleagues’ connection to each other and to the organisation’s work is a big part of motivating them to stay. 

There are no easy answers to the digital skills recruitment challenge. A good employer brand, patience and a bit of luck will help. Employers need to think long term and make an ambitious commitment to change, or this issue will return again.

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