Capability conundrums

March 2016

CountersAre IT recruiters to blame? Are employers to blame? Do job seekers do enough? BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, hosted a dinner on 20 October 2015 to discuss the current state and future needs of recruitment and capability in IT. Under Chatham House rules, key recruiters and employers gave their views on what the problems might be. Brian Runciman MBCS reports.

In recruitment and capability, what are the issues? For organisations it’s about the acquisition of talent. We instinctively know there is a problem - recruiters are blamed for poor recruits, employers are unhappy with the results, job seekers don’t get feedback and are stuck in the middle. Add into the mix the much-discussed skills shortage and the much discussed gender imbalance in the IT workforce and it’s a cocktail of missed opportunities.

Employers say they want a conversation on capability with IT recruiters, rather than ticking boxes in a list of software packages. ‘People are our most important asset’ has moved from the realm of mantra to actually being believed - and organisations know they can disrupt themselves by opening up the capability in their workforce.

These attitudes are not at odds with recruiters’ views. They also say they want to have meaningful conversations with clients about their long term capability strategy, not just to get a place on a preferred supplier list.

So why are capability concerns keeping people awake at night?

Why do employers not feel well served?

The view is that selection tools and attraction campaigns are not getting the calibre of employee the business expects. Another view was that capability itself was not the problem, but sheer numbers are - there are simply too few good people to draw on.

There are plenty of graduates, but not enough to choose from for effective recruitment. Anecdotally the ‘pick of the crop’ seem to want to do something for themselves, rather than try to get into a big organisation at a decent salary.

The entrepreneurial spirit and desire for self-determination that seems to typify generation Y, plus the reduced pull of previously key names in apprenticeships, has reduced the pool. Is this gen Y being flighty? Or is ethical awareness increasing and gen Y are put off by the traditional large IT recruiters?

What is an IT career?

The group felt that it can be difficult to explain what an IT career is. What are the routes in? How can entry points be defined for getting into IT for apprentices? There are often different job titles for the same jobs, adding to the confusion. And it seems that parents don’t rate careers in IT.

The same problem exists for returners and job changers. Some of these perceptions start in school. Where is the sexiness in IT? Do IT companies go into school and show what they do (outside London)? Do they demonstrate the excitement of it, showing that IT is not just Facebook.

The comment was made that a lot of IT companies do, in fact, engage with schools, but sustainability of interactions and the regularity of the messaging is the issue. Many schools seem to only want this kind of interaction with local employers once a year.

In the apprenticeship area it also seems that worrying about government targets for university entries mitigates against schools promoting other ways into the industry. This closes down the options that pupils are even aware of.

Government have said they will protect the brand of apprenticeships in the same way that the degree route is protected, but schools still focus on university entries, partly because the success rate is much more easily quantifiable.

On a very basic level, this question was posed: where are the career development officers in schools?

What about job movers?

One area that would theoretically fill the skills gap is for the industry to attract those wanting to move career. But it seems that job changers struggle to find posts. This seems to be particularly so in IT, where there is a tension between employers seeing younger recruits as more agile. Especially so with apprentices.

The more senior a person is when they try to move in their career, the more expensive they are. So they are a greater cost risk as well as being seen as less agile. One participant asked whether an organisation would hire a highly paid Drupal developer - especially if you see that specialism (rightly or wrongly) as a fading ‘flavour of the month’? If people can’t be retrained effectively, this is a serious societal problem.

Can that training gap be breeched? Some people do develop, but others get to a middle ground in their career and stay at that level. Do these people need re-skilling or re-energising?

Some in IT careers, such as testers and programmers, can have deep but narrow skills. Of course, these are needed, but when change is needed they can be resistant to it. All organisations need some plodders, but tech in particular changes quickly and does demand an element of agility.

It seems that some in the business shut themselves off to re-skilling, needing to be ‘forced’ to change under the threat of having severely reduced future career options.

Attitudes

The foregoing indicates that, for the individual, mind-set is an important factor. There can be psychological issues to overcome before retraining can even begin. We could usefully ask if at present the reskilling journey is handled poorly, even when a person is capable of moving into a new role. If that journey includes redundancy and so on the transition is, at best, jarring.

The approach organisations take to getting people with newer or more relevant skills also makes a difference. The example of GDS was used. GDS has been trying to reenergise central government IT - a massive job to make government master of its own capability. Sometimes useful talent has been undermined by the journey and, anecdotally, there has even been cannibalising of talent from other departments.

Big retailers have woken up to these issues already because ecommerce is now generating so much revenue. But the burgeoning CDO role shows that the IT department not really trusted.

Another issue that will require attitude changes is the disruption caused by new tech. So, if driving can be commoditised - which it soon will be - we need to do something with our view of skills. Other examples given were cognitive computing’s threat to estate agents and the idea that IBM’s Watson could do the job of recruiters. But better.

When some of these jobs go, what value add is there for humans to be involved in a bank branch, or recruitment agency? The group felt that there are advantages, but these issues are yet to be fully explored.

Interesting sidebar about attitude, but from a corporate perspective: IBM call apprentices ‘early professionals’.

How can people future proof their career?

Plodders or changers?

We assume generation Y are more agile because that seems to be the indication so far. But could that generation turn into plodders? Or is adaptability to change part of their skill set? It needs to be.

Some changes are specifically geographic. For example, the forthcoming loss of steel jobs in Scotland can be much better addressed if there are good local resources to support those affected. A good job market knowledge means better retraining opportunities, because they will be oriented around need. It was felt that those systems are not evenly spread.

Returners and aging workforce

Conundrum: Employers want to be able to draw on a big talent pool. But when a notional 50-year-old person is discussed they are often viewed as no longer of use. Confidence levels can be an issue: For a mother returning to work who feels they are not up with current trends, a 50-year-old feeling they are being overtaken by bright new apprentices, a person recently made redundant.

New approaches from employers give cause both for optimism and concern. One example was given of a business leader who claims to not be interested in experience, just the value a person can add to their organisation. High education or the ability to demonstrate great experience is not a consideration - just an assessment of the value-add.

What if someone is out of work for 15 years? They could have excellent potential, but how can you assess their capability? This was seen as highly problematic - even six months out of work could be seen as fatal to future prospects. Why, if there is such a need in the workforce, are these the prevailing views? Where is the ethical consideration for the wider social good when faced with sometimes necessary views of short-term utility?

The comment was made that large government suppliers have the motivation to look after a wider range of returners and job changers. They need to be seen to be doing the right thing, so may be more inclined to employ, for example, older workers. As they clearly react to what government requests, could a push to widen the workforce come from that direction?

Just to add to this conundrum, the comment was made on graduates that there is no correlation between the university a student attended and their subsequent ability. Yet some organisations prefer, for example, Russell Group university graduates - narrowing the recruitment pool further.

In fact, computer science graduates specifically were identified as often ‘unemployable’. Why? Lack of people skills was mentioned. An area where those who have done placements do much better.

The discussion suggested that in fact the majority of organisations do not recruit from a restricted pool of universities - but that this is nevertheless the perception. If that view is ill-founded it needs to be more widely debunked. The perception in itself is a problem.

Contractors as exemplars?

The discussion turned to the contracting market, one which seems to be buoyant. Contractors out of necessity have to keep up to date and reskill and it is inherent for a contractor to want to do that for themselves - it is part of their approach.

That attitude could be encouraged in IT departments. With so many new technologies - DevOps was name checked - some think staying in one role too long is the risk rather than the apparently greater uncertainty of the contractor market.

In fact, good people in any industry invest in themselves, they change with the need. It was noted that good contractors can uncover issues in organisations they go into, especially where teams are lagging. They can be a lightning rod for change.

For all employees in IT, a willingness to change is the biggest safety net. It’s about attitude and an awareness of personal brand. Employees even need to be aware that their employers may have a tendency to keep them in roles to the extent that they stagnate. For example, in project management, is it still ITSM and Prince 2? Do employees know DevOps approaches?

The discussion came up with the thought that if stagnation is an organisational problem, and it seems to be, people should be rotated even if that causes short-term unrest. Essentially, the approach could be to allow employees to be the ‘contractors’ of your organisation’s internal job market.

From a company perspective the tendency may be, for example with project teams, to note that they get comfortable working together, build client trust and are successful, therefore why would I change that structure?

However, an interesting example, if uncomfortably innovative for some, was given of the games company Valve Software. Their employee handbook demonstrates a very different approach to team structure - where it can be temporary and teams can even be summarily disbanded if it is for the good of the organisation. It works as a boss-free, empowering and genuinely flat organisation - at least that’s the aim. It certainly seems to be the antithesis of stagnation.

Diversity

Conundrum: there is a skills shortage in IT, but not enough females in IT. Is this about language? The group agreed that approaching IT type jobs as problems requiring creative solutions rather than using technology driven language would help. It would also help the employers - it is accepted that diverse input in teams (including by gender) demonstrably improves outcomes.

So whilst, for example, in project management, business analysis, programme management - business facing roles in general - there is good representation for women, there is much less in technical and management consultancy roles.

When the question was posed as to whether project success is achieved by ticking boxes in a notional list of skills or by getting a better team mix (including by gender), the view was unanimously the latter, but that’s not the way it’s done because it’s harder.

How do you describe a job to a female in an appealing way? The approach should be that it’s not about coding, but about problem solving. However, few IT roles are ‘sold’ in this way. Jargon is also off-putting in this context. If we take the approach that IT is so exciting because it has the potential to change the world... that would make it an attractive option for males and females alike.

Interestingly, the way women use language themselves was mentioned. Men are often better at promoting themselves. The idea was put forward by the group that the use of weak language when asked about input into a role or project can unnecessarily undermine good women. Did a woman ‘help’ / ‘assist’ / ‘do what I was asked to do’ or, in fact, instigate and complete?

It was also remarked upon that recruitment processes don’t play to female strengths. Assessments for numerical and verbal reasoning seem to mitigate against women.

Conundrum: Great collaboration skills are demanded by business, but from school onwards we test people on their own. So the outcomes are not synergistic with the approach taken. Again - great collaboration skills are demanded by the business, but then women are rarely in engineering teams that have a reputation of being combative and prone to splits. Women are collaborators.

Another issue in the workforce that affects women is the need for greater flexibility in working hours and so on. Mentoring and role modelling were cited as useful tools to more fully support women in the workforce. Both have recently been undertaken by BCS through a campaign to promote role models, and through the BCSWomen group, which undertakes mentoring. Women need coaching, not changing, to address these issues.

Defining the conundrums
  • Contractors can upskill the teams they go into - and set the bar for attitude
  • Apprentices are valued, perhaps more than graduates, and often have more immediately usable skills
  • The IT skills shortage is exacerbated by people being dismissed from consideration due to age, length of time out of work and other factors that can be ameliorated.
  • Diversity is still a problem, and because of that IT is often missing some key elements
  • To disrupt yourself is about a good attitude and agility - but there are training and support needs
  • Employees need to demonstrate value as employers are not solely interested in experience or qualifications; they focus on outcomes.
 
Further reading
 

Image: iStock/477535084

Comments (2)

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  • 1
    Rav wrote on 4th Apr 2016

    The reality is employers who are often not IT orientated have not shown enough respect to developers and IT staff. Its only now they are realising their value.

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  • 2
    John Rendall wrote on 4th Apr 2016

    The "skills shortage", from my personal experience, is being caused by ageism in recruitment agencies, as soon as they learned I was over 48 they suddenly stopped talking to me and my calls were un-answered or "they were on the other line" if I got through. This is despite 25 years in software development, the latter 8 in real-time and latterly safety-critical arenas.

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