Supporting social mobility can close the tech skills gap

James Milligan, Global Head of Technology at Hays

The technology sector skills gap is probably more acute than it’s ever been, and the reality is that this is a result of Covid-19. Organisations are accelerating digital transformation at a rate not seen before – we’re talking about a decade’s worth of change happening over the next two years, and that’s exacerbating the existing skills gap. There are only a certain number of people today with the necessary skills who are available and can go in and do those jobs, and organisations are going to have to become even more progressive in how they tackle this. They can either reskill existing people or be open-minded about the profiles of people they take on by looking at candidates who don’t come through the traditional routes.

Improving inclusion


Many technology organisations also have work to do around diversity, inclusivity and belonging. While some groups that are underrepresented in the wider workforce are actually quite prominent in the technology sector (including neurodiverse individuals and some groups of ethnic minorities), there are also clear gaps.

If you’re looking at it through the lens of social mobility and opportunity, most of the people who have traditionally come into tech have degrees in a technical discipline. There haven’t been the same routes into the industry for people who left education and haven’t completed a degree.

The issue with not having a diverse workforce is that you’re not seeing problems from all angles (or, for that matter, opportunities). You’re only seeing them through the eyes of the people you have, so the solutions and innovation they find are often made for the people that they represent. That solution might not work for people who aren’t represented, and that’s a massive issue for any type of business. It’s also a missed opportunity, because you might be locking out a whole market.

However, there has been significant progress – many online and free resources are available to people who want to learn new technology skills. Companies like Salesforce provide access to their learning programmes at no cost to individuals, and they take on candidates who come through these routes.

And it’s not just the responsibility of companies to fix this; you need to look at the support the government and the education sector are providing to engage with this pool of untapped talent. In the UK, the apprenticeship levy means there’s an apprenticeship route available, although an investment of time is required to develop talent in this way.

Charities are also playing their part. Leadership Through Sport & Business (LTSB) is a social mobility charity that prepares and supports bright young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to take on meaningful roles with major firms.

They ensure that all the organisations they work with provide training, prospects and fair pay to the young people they work with. LTSB's digital and technology programmes have seen many young people access a range of apprenticeships, from entry-level through to degree apprenticeships, across England and Scotland.

They have largely supported sectors that typically have diversity issues and suffer from a skills crisis and lack of representation from BAME communities. Supporting young people who were previously excluded from opportunities in these sectors allows them to make a real difference and offers them a chance to live the life they deserve.

Course correction


When looking to improve diversity within a technology organisation, the first things to consider are your job adverts and your selection process. Ask yourself whether or not postings are open to a wide talent pool. Have you included requirements that aren’t actually needed for the job?

Then, when you go to market, consider the language you’re using. Is it inclusive? Does it preclude people from applying who have deselected themselves because of the way you present yourself? For example, research has shown that excessive use of superlatives like “expert”, “world-class” or “superior” can reduce the number of female candidates applying.

Next, when you reach the assessment process, consider if you are assessing a candidate’s ability to do the job here and now, or if you are looking to see if they can develop the skills and competencies required. Only looking at the here and now reduces your talent pool, whereas if you hire somebody who has the ability to grow into that role, they’ll likely be a much more agile employee in the future, as they’ll be used to changing and evolving to meet the needs of technology.

When you do start to attract more diverse candidates, you’ll also need to consider how to provide a more inclusive experience within your organisation. Create clear and open channels of communication that allow them to share their views and be their authentic selves at work. If they feel listened to and welcomed, the chance of them staying and being successful increases an awful lot.

Building bridges, removing barriers


In the longer term, it can be hugely beneficial for businesses to forge links with charities, educational institutes and governments to develop long-lasting pipelines. Leaders can help this on an individual level by facilitating links with organisations that mean the most to them. I chair the board of Teen-Turn, an organisation that gives teenage girls the opportunity to gain hands-on STEM experience and the support to acquire qualifications and jobs. I believe in the importance of improving gender diversity, but it’s actually the social mobility I’m more passionate about. Leaders should play to their strengths and build links with organisations that they are authentically interested in.

Finally, businesses can take steps to ensure it is easy for bodies like Teen-Turn to work with them. Some multinationals have really restricted processes that prevent them from working with outside organisations. It’s important to remove barriers and have some fluidity. If you’ve got 50 pages of compliance that have to be completed before somebody can get onboarded in this way, you’re unlikely to see success.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Forbes website. James Milligan is a member of the Forbes Human Resources Council.




James Milligan
Global Head of Technology at Hays

James Milligan is the Global Head of Technology at Hays, having joined in 2000. In his role, he is responsible for the strategic development of Hays' technology businesses globally.