How can industry and academia work together to develop talent?

By Anna Knight

This was the question on everyone’s lips at the Skills 2020 debate in Glasgow (Tuesday 21st January 2014) where people from both camps came together to look ahead at the next 5-10 years to address the talent shortage which has been identified and well documented. Talent acquisition is a problem – whilst businesses have to grow, it is becoming increasingly challenging.

How do academics keep pace with the technology industry?

The technology landscape is constantly changing and progressing, making it increasingly difficult for Universities to ensure that the courses and content are up-to-date and relevant in the industry. Courses have constantly evolved over the years, despite the expense involved in refreshing course content, but it is in everyone’s best interests for this to happen.

‘Is having a degree as important nowadays?’ asked Neil Logan (CTO of Lockheed Martin). There are many ways to learn, and many different ways to gain experience within technology. Should businesses be looking for raw talent – people with the aptitude and the softer skills you can’t teach – and nurture that with training and development within their organisation?

While this is not likely to happen across the board (certainly not for a long time), industry and academia must work collaboratively, even if it seems to be easier said than done!

Understanding SMEs

SMEs are continuing to find it difficult to hire in this market – not only are there challenges in attracting the right people with the right skills, but they are finding that the majority of candidates are rejected at the interview stage – many of them don’t understand how to sell themselves and highlight their skills and employability.

Frances Sneddon (CTO of simulation software organisation SIMUL8) believes that there is a definite lack of awareness of start-up and technology SMEs in comparison to the big names such as Oracle, Microsoft etc., and that young people are largely unaware of the benefits of working for an SME, such as the huge opportunity for personal development, travel, and a dynamic and diverse work environment. A common theme throughout the afternoon was lack of awareness from school-level through to university about the career opportunities on offer within the technology industry, and educating children and young adults on the massive opportunities available to them by becoming part of the Scottish (and UK/Global) technology industry. Frances also pointed out that the pressure to hire ‘industry ready’ candidates is key in an SME; the fast pace means that new joiners experience more responsibilities and have more exposure, but they also need to add real value to the business – possibly sooner than if joining a large corporate.

On companies helping that relationship, Ian Allison (Head of the School of Computing at Robert Gordon University) encouraged businesses to ‘adopt a school’ in order to raise awareness of their career opportunities and trends to future technologists. There are barriers to this, as Gavin Dutch (MD of Kotikan) explained through his experience of trying to work with his old school – the general feeling was that there didn’t really seem to be much of an appetite from schools to gain assistance from the industry. However, there are opportunities for interested people to register as an ambassador for science, technology, engineering or mathematics, and help to inspire young people with an organisation called Stemnet (www.stemnet.org.uk).

The gender gap

Frances pointed out that there is a worrying lack of female talent coming through in the market – which we have also observed. Women entering the technology workforce has dropped from 30% to 17% recently, and currently provided only 13-14% of university intake in technology subjects, according to Ian at RGU. It would be interesting to find the root cause of this – not specifically for any pro-gender representation reasons, but if the percentage of women in technology rose even slightly then surely that in itself would help in a small way to counteract the skills shortage – along with helping diversity in the workplace, which in turn could help attract new talent too.

Attracting young talent into IT

Ian talked around the problems attracting young talent into IT. Again, the common theme seemed to be lack of awareness at schools, but then also went on say how universities’ technology courses are oversubscribed and have no additional capacity to take on more technology students. It seems to me that even if we could raise awareness in schools and more people chose to pursue a place at university, the competition will be tough, so this doesn’t really help address the problem of encouraging more talent. As I understand it, this problem boils down to funding, and it underlines the importance of lobbying government to support everyone involved and invest in the industry. There is of course still room for businesses who have the resources to offer apprenticeships where possible, and to address the skills shortage in the meantime we should all try to identify and encourage talent (not just skills) in young people.

Ian also quoted figures around the predicted demand for technology professionals in Scotland from a Technology Insights report by e-skills UK. This research suggests that there will be the need for an additional 9600 entrants to the Scottish IT market over the next three years.

In summary…

Scotland is full of passionate, talented people who are keen to discuss, question and challenge ideas. While there are no easy answers to the skill shortage in the short or long term, it is encouraging to see that people in the technology industry are trying to work together alongside academics to address it through training, development, and other innovative projects, for the greater good.

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