I have never known a time when the UK (or indeed elsewhere) has had enough skills for IT. Not just the skills in the technology itself, but in project and change management, architecture and tech support.

In the last few months I have been approached nearly every week by a head-hunter asking if I know anyone with skill set X or Y. There is clearly a skills shortage growing even against a slowing economy.

What I’ve found interesting is that whether in big data, AI, robotics, IoT or platform technologies, what I’m increasingly being asked about has a late 1980s feel. That was the era of the ‘hybrid manager’. The argument then was that the way forward was to create IT specialists who had domain expertise and business skills. Then we would argue that there was a divide between the language and culture of those who saw themselves as IT savvy and those who were marketing, finance or management specialists and what was needed was a cadre of people who could feel comfortable in both worlds.

A recent example was looking for someone with five years IoT experience in a manufacturing or logistics role with international exposure, preferably under 30!

So, why is it that over more than 30 years we seem to repeat, under various guises, serious skills shortages and could we do better?

Partly, advances in technology creates new roles and new skills needs but also, for a significant period, great uncertainty. The best example from my own past of this uncertainty was a workshop in the 1990s on the skill needs for retail for the coming decade when we had a variety of policy makers and stakeholders including FE, tech companies, unions and retailers. We came away envisaging two very different worlds. One was quite tech-focused in that self-checkout would mature quickly and the need for checkout assistants would decline between 2000 and 2010. The other world, more people-focused, suggested that we would be short of checkout staff by around 50,000 heads and would need to recruit older workers to meet retail needs. The HR people in retail could manage the next two years but strategically beyond that the level of uncertainty meant that workforce planning had an industry wide uncertainty of around 200,000 roles. There was a lot of moaning about poor workforce planning and the need for more strategic thinking, but no clarity on what that actually meant.

How many medical roboticists does the UK health sector need by 2025? Who would you ask who would be credible, let alone accurate? Can you describe the skill set for the roles in that domain?

What would you expect lawyers or architects for instance to have as the ‘IT skills’ at qualification by 2030? I know from experience that updating qualifications is a 5-7 year project, so if we want those skills we need to start working on them now to have them in place by 2025 when the next generation of students starts their adult qualifications.

Take the bundle of technologies AI/ML, IoT, big data, and robotics and imagine an undergraduate version of the ‘computer driving license’ that you could embed across any professional silo. I suspect that it might be difficult to get agreement even within the disciplines themselves as to what that core curriculum might look like.

The challenge over my entire career has been that the pace of adoption of the technology and the realisation of benefits has been driven by skills shortages along with deployment of infrastructure (notably 3G and beyond and broadband).

One of the most influential talks on my own thinking was given by Bill Raduchel, then at SUN systems. He argued that just because the technology is new doesn’t mean that the challenges are new. He explained how a mainframe-less company like SUN still need the same disciplines as an IBM mainframe house. Many of the processes, and much of the culture was identical.

Implementing the IT changes needed for Brexit against a tight timescale will, for me, be deeply problematic if we start from a tech focus on the skills shortage.

What gives me hope is some of the unusual skills mixes that I have found in start-ups or just scaling up companies. There is much more of a focus there on building multi-skilled teams rather than recruiting individuals against specific job specs.

Covering skills gaps by peer to peer learning on projects in my experience is faster, cheaper and more effective than big skill drives to meet medium term needs, faced with the uncertainties I described earlier.

One of my mentors described it thus: ‘education is just-in-case, training is most effective just-in-time’.

Workplace learning has been the Cinderella of the skills agenda for too long. One of the serious challenges is that the growth of the gig economy, the end of jobs for life and increasingly flexible working is making workforce development and productivity growth an increasing challenge across all sectors.

Yet the technology platforms we are building could surely enable much more integration of work and learning than was possible 10-30 years ago. In January, I went to BETT the big educational technology show in London. I’ve been going for nearly 30 years. It has grown enormously in that time. There are lots of shiny tech toys on show, but it does feel, compared to the 1990s, that the learning horse is beginning to get a better say than the technology cart. I suspect we may be near a tipping point and that in the next decade edTECH will become EDtech. I hope so.

I recently did a session with a police force and they were talking about what they were doing with technology in the last few years. I had been involved in pilots on some of those ideas back in 2002. The difference was that some of the young policemen and women then are now emerging as the leaders and have both the tech and domain skills to knit together real solutions.

Change can be a long time coming, but when it comes it can change very fast. I think Lenin’s quote ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’ may be a good motto for the 2020s.

The recent broadening of the net in looking for people from a wider variety of backgrounds to become cybersecurity professionals is an excellent example of what I think we need if we are to see technology advances deliver the claimed benefits to the economy and society. Can we apply that across more sectors, please?

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.