Bridging the gap: addressing the tech skills shortage through greater diversity
Published: 2nd August 2023
The UK, like much of the rest of the world, is in the midst of a digital skills shortage. This becomes even more pronounced when looking at cyber security, with a government report indicating that half of UK businesses have a basic skills gap – indicating that those in charge of the company’s security lack the confidence to carry out the basic tasks defined in the Cyber Essentials scheme.
If left unchecked, the skills gap will only continue to grow. Technology innovation will advance faster than the development of skills needed to apply such technology, and businesses will find it increasingly difficult to find the right people to fill their vacancies. With the UK trying to position itself as a global tech superpower, this is a challenge that desperately needs attention.
There have been several initiatives and investments to drive progress in this area, but there is more work to be done. Education is of course a key factor in strengthening the tech talent pipeline, but to truly fix the issue, and to safeguard the industry’s future, we also need to encourage more diversity in the sector – giving people from all backgrounds equal opportunities and support to pursue a career in technology.
The untapped potential
While it is true that diversity in the UK technology sector has increased, it still has a long way to go. Only 26% of the UK tech workforce is made up by women (with as little as 5% of leadership roles), the proportion of BAME workers isn’t representative of the population, and neurodiverse people remain underrepresented in the tech labour market as they do across all industries.
Making the sector more accessible to these groups would not only help tackle the talent shortage, but increased diversity in the workplace brings its own benefits. A broader set of perspectives and skill sets within a team leads to more innovation and has also been linked to better decision-making, increased productivity and higher financial returns – as indicated by Calvert Research and Management’s study, which showed that companies with greater board diversity may well be better stock picks.
Technology is also built to serve everyone, and the industry’s workforce should reflect this. For us to continue creating innovative products and services, it stands to reason that our workforce needs to represent the full breadth of potential users, made up of people from different cultures, backgrounds, races, genders, and abilities. Without a representative workforce it is easy to fall into the trap of biased technology, which has been seen time and time again in the likes of facial recognition, health tracking technology and most recently with AI.
Encouraging diversity in tech skills
Encouraging diversity within the UK tech industry isn’t an easy task. It is an ongoing, multifaceted process that requires systemic change and is one that will take time to see the results of. Though many organisations have taken steps to encourage more applications from diverse groups, there are still more that haven’t, with just 40% of those recruiting for cyber roles since January 2021 adapting hiring procedures or carrying out related activities. As organisations within the industry, it is our responsibility to drive diversity further, and there are several actions we can take to help.
For gender diversity, we can start by inspiring and empowering more women and gender-diverse individuals to take up careers in tech. This can range from promoting tech education at an early age amongst underrepresented genders to implementing mentorship programs, additional training, and inclusive policies at the corporate level. Early misconceptions about the industry are still a key reason for the lack of gender diversity, and more educational programmes and corporate support plays a crucial role in breaking the existing barriers.
To embrace neurodiversity, we need to recognize the unique skills and perspectives neurodiverse individuals bring to the table. Neurodiversity can enhance skills in pattern recognition and creativity, and neurodiverse people can often be among the most focused and dedicated members of a team. It is important, however, to understand the needs of the individual and make suitable adjustments.
Adapting a workplace and hiring practices to meet the needs of neurodivergent employees and applicants can be as simple as offering more flexibility, allowing people to communicate in a manner they find comfortable and using skills-based hiring to encourage a wider range of candidates to apply.
Socio-economic diversity is equally crucial to bridging the skills gap, and opportunities need to be provided irrespective of economic background. UK tech businesses can help by offering paid internships and apprenticeships, as well as introducing policies to further support economic wellbeing. Through working in partnership with local schools, businesses can bring extra-curricular STEM learning activities to young people that may not have access to the right tools outside of school.
In a bid to further these diversity goals, we recently launched our Coding Club for primary children, with the aim to stimulate further interest in STEM subjects before they move on to secondary school. The programme targets children with a mix of genders and abilities and found a high level of engagement from all, despite there still being a higher attendance of male students. We chose a school that receives a high level of pupil premium, with many pupils eligible for free school meals. This allowed us to target a school where children might have less access to extra-curricular activities.
Simple steps to make a big difference to the tech skills shortage
As part of a continued drive to boost diversity in the sector, we have seen recent success though the combination of several different initiatives:
- Educate early – Promote careers in tech at an early age through collaboration with schools, such as with the Red Helix Coding Club, and by taking on work experience students of different abilities from year 10 through to those studying at university.
- Implement mentorship programs – Provide mentorship and support for minority groups in the workplace.
- Corporate training and policies – Establish additional training programmes and inclusive policies to foster a more welcoming environment. Incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) objectives into your ESG strategy to give these initiatives prominence across the company.
- Be Flexible – whether accommodating childcare requirements, the needs of neurodivergent employees or any other reason, we have found that greater flexibility builds greater diversity in the workforce.
By following simple steps to encourage a more diverse tech workforce, we can start to close the skills and ensure the continued development of products and services built for the full breadth of society – helping to position the UK as a global tech superpower committed to inclusivity and diversity.