By Brian Hickey
How many people can program a driverless car? How many can program an artificial intelligence? How many can get their head around blockchain (and no, it doesn’t count if you invested €100 in Bitcoin)?
And yet, how many times have you read about driverless cars being on the cusp of adoption, or traditional currencies being on the verge of becoming obsolete?
The truth is, the pool of individuals who actually know how to build these technologies is very small. We are living in a world where we are dependent on technologies that only those with recent training actually understand, or can control.
For companies looking to keep up with digital innovation, finding talent in these new fields can be like searching for a (very expensive) needle in a haystack.
It’s time to break down the myth that these essential skills are exclusive to tech bubbles and computer science PhDs. We must empower as many people as possible to learn about the new technologies that we are becoming reliant on.
Swimming in a tiny pool
The tech skills gap isn’t a new thing. The European Commission estimates that by 2020 almost 500,000 ICT jobs in Europe may remain unfilled. 40 percent of European companies have difficulties finding ICT specialists. This is one of the biggest challenges that we as a tech industry face right now.
It all comes down to a simple issue of supply and demand. The demand for the technical skills that make, say, a great self-driving car engineer, or AI programmer, is growing a lot faster than the supply of people who have those skills. According to the European Commission, 169 million Europeans between 16 and 74 are lacking basic digital skills.
This means that competition among businesses to find the best talent is fierce. Consequently, hiring developers is incredibly expensive: AI experts have an average salary of €220,000 per year, if they work for industry leaders.
Deep learning experts are in such high demand that they command the same types of seven figure salaries as some first year NFL players.
This isn’t sustainable. Not only does it mean that the best tech talent is poached by only the biggest companies with the deepest pockets, it also means that what talent there is isn’t exactly diverse. 93 percent of software developers worldwide are male, and 74 percent are of white or European descent, according to Stack Overflow’s 2018 global survey. This is a worrying imbalance.
Look around you
This leaves businesses – of all sizes – hunting for tech talent at an impasse. Managers know they need developers to stay competitive, but finding developers is an arduous and expensive process. And what’s more, the talent that you have to choose from is all from a similar mould and doesn’t offer many options for diversity.
My advice to these businesses would be to stop searching externally for talent. It’s an enormous waste of time and resources. Instead, look around you in the office. Focus on the people you have.
They might not be trained in software development, or data science, or AI yet but by providing them with the skills that you as a business needs to take control of your own competitiveness, they can plug the talent gaps that you are facing.
Not just a nice-to-have
Thankfully, we’re already seeing an encouraging shift in businesses looking to train their own employees: last year American companies spent $91bn on staff training last year, almost as third as much again as they did in 2016.
That’s over $1000 for every staff member being taught, according to Training magazine. And in the UK, companies can choose to spend the newly established apprenticeship levy on retraining existing staff.
This training that you implement must not be just a box-ticking exercise. Businesses need to take the lead by nurturing a culture of lifelong learning in the office, where employers and employees alike are continually growing. Invest the time and money into reskilling programmes so that you can stay ahead of the game and drive loyalty.
How? Build your own in-house training schemes of work with specialized providers to provide up-to-date, state of the art training. And don’t just leave it there and expect people to take up your offer.
Actively encourage your employees to spend time on their learning. Encourage them that learning is part of the culture. Set an example by making sure that you are constantly learning too.
When I joined my company, I learned that our European marketing team had recently broadened their skillset by taking an in-house nano-degree program that taught them new skills. Now, they are able to take on data-tracking and data-management tasks in their marketing roles.
This will not only benefit the employees, but will have a net positive effect on the company as a whole. It will free up senior staff who no longer have to spend time on basic tech instruction. It saves money that would have been spent on recruiting staff from outside. And what’s more, you as a company can position yourself on the cutting edge of technological growth.
In the long run, building this lifelong learning culture in businesses will have a significant impact on the way society thinks about retraining and up-skilling.
Business have often been reluctant to spend money on retraining employees. This is an attitude that needs to change. By investing time and money into retraining your employees, instead of looking further afield, businesses will not only become self-sufficient when it comes to talent, but they will also be extremely attractive to outside talent who find retraining an important benefit.
Great employees deserve it and if you want to hold on to them then they are entitled to it. It’s the cheapest and most efficient way of tackling the skills gap that threatens to let technology make us less relevant and less competitive. Successful companies are the ones that will embrace this change.
Brian Hickey is managing director of Udacity Europe, an online, lifelong learning platform connecting education to jobs and providing students with skills to advance careers.
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