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Breaking down Barriers

Encouraging Entry into Technology

Adam Farrell for Red Alert

 

"Since 2015, there's been a 40% drop in students taking IT at GCSE."

The effects are being understood for the first time as Gen-Z's eldest members enter and solidify their presence in the workforce.

We're seeing lack of confidence, digital unpreparedness, and employers with unrealistic expectations of what an 'entry-level' job should be.

What can we do? How can we break down barriers and encourage entry into the tech sector? As recruiters we're uniquely placed to catalyse change and help hiring managers understand the job market, future trends, and preventative measures to ensure the success of their teams. 

Let's dig in.

 

Why do I care?

This conversation has been evolving for the past two years, and in 2022 it’s more important than ever. With a booming tech and transformation hiring landscape starting to shift gears, tech companies are reporting difficulties with diverse, entry-level and skilled talent acquisition.  

My job as a recruitment consultant gives me a real, boots-on-the-ground insight into the ever-shifting sands of today’s job markets. I get to assess the sentiment of clients and candidates across a huge range of niches.

What’s becoming clear to me is if we don’t invest in entry-level cohorts, existing talent will upskill or age out of the industry. Skilled employees will become more expensive and harder to source. 

This year I want to focus on breaking down barriers into tech by actively identifying issues and exploring solutions. Sound like your cup of tea? Stay tuned for more from Big Red and our partners over the next twelve months.  

 

What are the barriers to entering tech? 

Three issues stick out to me as hindering entry into the tech sector.  

  • There’s a nationwide skills gap, particularly in technology graduate cohorts. This is further exacerbated by a widespread skills gap in data science and analytics, which is becoming more of a foundational requirement for tech companies in the era of personalisation and BI. 
  • Truly ‘entry-level’ jobs are scarce as employers move towards a few years’ work experience as a requirement for even their most junior employees. The tech job market has boomed post-pandemic, but the growth is primarily in highly skilled roles, yet again leaving graduates and entry-level candidates behind. 
  • Socioeconomic and systemic factors are widening the skills gap. Internships are the new ‘entry-level jobs’, but most are ringfenced by location in the most expensive areas of the UK, and only accessible to those who can viably undertake a full summer of unpaid work each year.

 

Mind the gap... it's digital and it's nationwide

We're facing a technology skills gap in the UK. A government report estimates it would be very difficult for Higher Education (HE) alone to fill it - a worrying prospect. So, when technology and data science students graduate, what are they missing that makes them so hard to employ?

A student may be well-versed in the practical usage of basic IT skills, analysis, programming (Python, R, SQL), data ethics, and more. But almost unilaterally, HE is not providing adequate training in areas like leadership, professionalism, communication, curiosity, creativity... the harder-to-pin-down soft skills required to excel in technology and digital, whatever your niche.  

Students are aware of this. In fact, a consequence of degree oversaturation coupled with scarcity of opportunity for real professional work experience has birthed a generation lacking in confidence. 

Salesforce's Digital Skills Index surveyed Gen-Z respondents on their comfort levels with the digital skills demanded by today's professional world. Of UK respondents, a mere 30% felt "very prepared with workplace digital skills". Even fewer felt they were equipped with adequate resource to learn digital skills, with the number dropping further for those actively engaging in learning new digital skills or undertaking training.  

Is this shocking to you? Many believe that Gen-Z are the “digitally native” generation. Reportedly, 83% claim advanced or intermediate social media skills, but only a third feel prepared for the workplace social media skills needed over the next five years. 

Clearly, growing up with a smartphone doesn’t translate into appropriate digital skills for a professional technology career. 

To close this gap, we first need awareness it exists. Formal education is not providing the youngest members of our workforce with the skills they need to succeed. The next step is ensuring companies have investment in younger generations as a business-critical priority.

 

Where are all the entry-level jobs? 

In 2017, a LinkedIn analysis of close to 4 million jobs showed that "35% of postings for “entry-level” positions asked for years of prior relevant work experience”. What's going on?

Tightening budgets and increasing salaries in mid-to-senior roles could be an explanation for this. Digital transformation was a slow-burning consideration for most companies up until 2020, but the switch to online services catalysed by the pandemic means that in 2022, it's simply 'transform or you won’t compete'.

Digital transformation is most notable in industries like food tech (think Deliveroo), online shopping (Amazon), and communications (Zoom). The skillsets needed to move digital transformation along at pace are, quite simply, not entry-level. For example, it's no surprise that SEO roles saw a 274% year-on-year growth between 2020-2021 - a creation of nearly 7k jobs. 

Of 17 fast-growing tech and digital job roles identified across in the UK during that time period, I would only classify one (or maybe two, cautiously) as true entry-level roles. IT Support roles increased year-on-year by 174.62% and IT Sales by 208.72%.

Short-term, I understand we're meeting a need - the market demands rapid change, and skilled talent in mid-to-senior digital transformation positions. But as this cohort moves forward with their own careers, where will we find 'new blood'?

 

You must understand the gap to close it 

Unfortunately, there is an attitude we are encountering across the board - many tech companies feel it's not their responsibility to bridge the skills gap that is hindering graduates and entry-level candidates from securing junior roles.  

At the same time, the rise of internships as the 'true entry-level job' casts a dark shadow over students disadvantaged systemically. I researched tech internships available on popular grad site Gradcracker.com for this piece. Of 147 opportunities advertised, 34% were in London and the Southeast. Scotland accounted for 16% and the Northwest for 11%.

If employers expect their entry-level candidates to have prior work experience, but internships are ringfenced to the most expensive areas of the UK (and realistically only viable for those who can undertake a summer's unpaid work each year) - what is the result?

A talent pool lacking in diversity, and many degree-bearing students slipping through the cracks as they are superseded by those lucky enough to access these opportunities.

That's not to discount the hard work of students who go for internships - take a look at the tech placements advertised by consulting firms, banks and major companies in the UK and you'll get a feel for how competitive they are. Still, if we are unable to bridge the gap for those who don't have access to work experience - our future talent pools are guaranteed to be smaller and less diverse.

 

How can recruiters make a tangible impact? 

Both in terms of my own professional development and the longevity of my clients' teams, I have to think about futureproofing my decisions. I use my expertise to actively identify problems and speak about solutions, so clients get a heads-up and can evolve their EVP in line with job market trends.   

There's a real need for early-years intervention, particularly when it comes to gender diversity in tech. Computer Science take-up at A-Level is still split at approximately 80:20 male to female. And although I'm a great advocate for alternative routes into the workforce, the UK's apprenticeship scheme is reported to feature a growing gender pay gap, as well as declining overall take-up year-on-year. 

I want to discover new insights, communicate them to my clients, and help bridge that skills gap. With the right community focus, we can make a difference.

Yes, it's fuelled by a desire to 'do good', but the business case is clear - in the next 5 years, I predict a critical shortage of adequately skilled entry-level technology and digital professionals. 

For those of us already in the field, the least we can do is offer a helping hand for the next generation.

 

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