Why re-skilling UK workers is important amid the pandemic

In a year that has seen widespread economic disruption, this is a good time to retrain for a technology role.

Bridging skills gap

In his March budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled “Help to Grow: Digital," a new scheme to offer small businesses free, impartial advice on “how technology can boost their performance through a new online platform.”

Although the UK has long been a tech hub, an ever-widening skills gap among workers has long been a concern in the industry — even as it continues to grow. (Just recently, Microsoft predicted that the UK would require an additional 1.9 million software developers by 2025.)

Despite job losses that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, research has shown the gap could be set to narrow, with a report from CWJobs finding that more than half of non-tech workers are contemplating a career change and eyeing tech-based careers.

However, with university courses in the UK now costing £9,250 a year, traditional routes into work for those entering the labour market are starting to lose their appeal. Additionally, for workers who are already established in their careers, returning to education is not always a viable option.

The IT Skills and Salary Report by Global Knowledge found that 81% of unsatisfied IT professionals plan to switch jobs this year, a figure directly linked to a lack of investment in training by their employers. The report also found a lack of training can cost a company 520 work hours per year, or about £20,887.

The importance of building talent

With IT vacancies on the rise — CWJobs saw a 25% increase in jobs last June compared to the previous month, highlighting the shift in demand for tech talent after the switch to national remote work in March 2020 – retraining and re-skilling is not just the preserve of those looking to enter the technology industry.

HP’s 2020 Workplace Evolution Study found that a key theme in the UK has been the rise of the "empowered employee". Research showed that around 60% of UK office workers want to learn new skills, but more than a third (37%) found that their employers have deprioritised training.

The report also found that, compared to other markets, British office workers believe the most strongly (70%) that it is the employer’s responsibility to provide workers with the training they need to adapt to workplace changes.

While not every employee has the capacity to become a software developer, there will be individuals in every organisation with the potential to re-skill from existing legacy tech, or switch to tech for the first time.

Thomas O’Reilly, head of group strategy at UK-based technology talent provider QA, said the need to re-skill often results from a pragmatic economic perspective as legacy businesses continue to decline. He cited the number of UK retailers that have seen business move exclusively online and the need these companies now have for workers with tech skills.

“You will not be able to transform your businesses to be a tech business if you do not have the requisite talent to do so,” he said.

However, while hiring an outside candidate may be the best option to plug a one-person talent gap, many organisations don’t have the luxury of building a new team with fresh talent.

O’Reilly points to a recent KPMG Harvey Nash survey that found 67% of CIOs believe a lack of available talent is holding them back, to which the only solution is to build talent. He said it’s easy to poach 50 developers from a rival company but ultimately, that just leaves someone else struggling with the talent shortage. As a result, re-skilling existing employees is the best option.

“I actually think that most companies really care about their employees,” O’Reilly said. “And if faced with a choice between removing a large swathe of the workforce and bringing in new talent, [most companies would] rather not do that as those are very tough decisions to take.”

He noted that when employees have been with a company for years, replacing them with a new hire not only puts someone out of a job, it also leads to a loss of knowledge and understanding about how a company works.

How do re-skilling bootcamps work?

QA works with companies across the UK that are looking to retrain and reskill large sections of their workforce. Most recently, the company worked with UK building society Nationwide to ehance its engineering team via a re-skilling programme. The society was looking to build a full complement of software engineering skills, covering DevOps and Agile. Over the course of 12 weeks, trainees from across the organisation — some with no previous IT skills – were taught a syllabus focused on Nationwide’s long-term business goals.

O’Reilly said QA takes a three-part approach when working directly with organisations, which starts with raising awareness around why a re-skilling project is needed. “You need to softly build awareness of the hard truth, which might be that a company is going through a digital transformation that will mean ... closing branches and needing less front-end branch tellers as more work will be done online. Therefore, it will need more app developers and more cloud architects.”

He explains that it’s also important to build a base-line level of awareness around these different technologies. “If you've never heard of a cloud, it's pretty hard to make an informed judgment about what a career in cloud technology really means, let alone if it’s something you're going to like,” he said.

A selection phase then takes place, where people apply and get accepted onto the re-skilling programme. O’Reilly said this can be difficult, as you can’t use previous experience or knowledge as a selection criterion.

The actual training programme then takes place over a period of time most suited to the organisations. If employees have become redundant, training can happen a lot quicker than for workers that need to balance learning with continuing their day job.

What can the government do?

In September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that £8 million would be spent on short courses in IT subjects such as cloud services, digital for advanced manufacturing, and cyber security with links to job interviews to help people 19 and over gain employment in the digital sector.

Bootcamps such as the ones run by QA have also been allocated funding through the Department, with a further expansion, to include sectors such as construction and engineering, being paid for using the National Skills Fund from April.

O’Reilly explains that although QA does work directly with corporations such as Nationwide who pay the company directly rather than use government grants, it’s vital that the UK government position itself at the forefront of the re-skilling revolution.

“The government is uniquely placed to raise awareness and to provide endorsement of this route,” he said. “I think the government's even talking about the benefits of re-skilling, extolling its virtues and signposting people to the different routes available to them, is something which nobody else can do…. It has a public relations pulpit that no one else has.”

He added he would love to see the government raise awareness both for companies to take on individuals who have been re-skilled or think about helping individuals internally, and for individuals to consider new careers. “The government should be far more active in endorsing tech careers and routes into tech,” he said.

When it comes to re-skilling your workforce, O’Reilly said it pays to be radical and creative. He notes that a lot of companies might be tempted to stick with previously trusted routes, such as hiring from an established labour market. But recent data shows that this isn’t viable long term.

“In all cases of large change, particularly when it comes to how employees work, what they do and reskilling, there's never a good time. There's always some reason why it's uncomfortable or difficult,” he said.

“But at a time of profound economic disruption, which is so closely aligned with tech winning, now is the perfect time to be thinking about enacting much more radical, wide-reaching and creative reskilling options to build tech talent.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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