Need developers? Solving the tech skills shortage means looking beyond hiring


Demand for tech workers is greatly outstripping supply following a spike in tech investment during the past 18 months.

Image: Getty/10’000 Hours

With demand rapidly outstripping supply, simply trying to hire more tech workers onto organizational teams is no longer viable. As such, reskilling, upskilling and training employees is more crucial than ever for companies hoping to build digital-ready workforces that can carry their businesses into the future.

One example of this is Liberty Mutual Insurance, which has been running an internal training initiative since 2017 that allows participants to develop skills in technical areas that interest them.

Called TechStart@Liberty, the annual programme gives entry-level IT employees the opportunity to gain a broader exposure to the organization’s technologies, and build new or existing skills.

SEE: Developers, DevOps and cybersecurity: The top tech talent employers are looking for

The Fortune 100 company hires about 120 ‘TechStarters’ on an annual basis, depending on the technology or the portfolio, says Neil Duggan, director of tech talent acquisition at Liberty Mutual. “We have various technology portfolios that support different business units across the organization that do different things,” he tells ZDNet.

“For example, perhaps someone wants to pursue a career in data engineering: we have data engineering groups, software engineering groups…when they complete this programme, they can be assigned to a team that aligns with their personal interests within the technology organization, and this allows them to really propel their career.”

Duggan points out that technology has always been competitive, and that his company – like many others – faced challenges in recruiting skilled workers well before the pandemic. He says the TechStart programme has done “a tremendous job” in helping the company close the skills gap by ensuring that employees are constantly learning on the job.

“Continuous learners have the ability and the willingness to pursue different technologies and different skillsets that might be out of their original comfort zone. I think that’s really helping us in that regard.”

Moulding a multidisciplinary workforce

Liberty Mutual also recognizes the importance of core skills and personality traits in both determining a person’s suitability for a role, as well as preparing them for the more complex and multi-disciplinary business functions emerging from digitization.

In addition to ‘hard’ technical skills like Node.js, React, Angular and various cloud technologies, the TechStart programme also allows participants to develop the types of ‘soft’ skills that are of increasing importance to employers – for example, adaptability and agility.

Duggan says that these are especially important for employees in a future work landscape where reskilling and upskilling become commonplace. “Maybe someone is specialising in one technology or one [programming] language today, but depending on that mindset, those skills in two years from now, five years from now, could be transferrable to another language.”

Liberty Mutual’s program is one response to a the broad shortage of tech expertise: a June 2021 report by the UK’s City and Guilds Group found that job postings for tech and digital roles increased by 21% between April 2020 and April 2021, while data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published in February revealed that more than 100,000 new jobs had been created in the UK tech industry since the start of the pandemic.

SEE: Quantum computing’s next big challenge: A quantum skills shortage

Software development, which has suffered perpetual skills shortages, is among the technical field to have seen the biggest increase in demand over the past 18 months. City & Guilds Group’s research found that job postings for full-stack engineers increased by 312% in the year to April 2021, while demand for front-end engineers increased 184%. 

Little wonder that many tech recruiters anticipate finding developers will present their biggest hiring challenge this year.

Phil Boden, senior manager at recruitment agency Robert Half tells ZDNet that a lot of the agency’s recent work has focused on trying to help clients with vacancies across software development roles.

“Across the board, we are seeing requests for candidates with demonstrable experience in Python, .NET, C# and PHP, while financial services firms are specifically looking for talent with a strong working knowledge of Java,” says Boden.

It’s not just coders that businesses are desperate to recruit. According to a report published this month by KPMG and REC, cloud platforms, agile project management, data management and business intelligence rank amongst the tech skills shortages encountered most by recruiters. “We have found that, depending on the business and sector, every single technical skill is in short supply and, crucially, high demand,” says Boden.

Connecting the technical tapestry

Bev White, chief executive of IT recruiter and consultancy Harvey Nash Group, notes that the skills driving transformation are the ones that are focused on the customer, as well as those that stitch together the ever-increasing array of technologies and platforms being adopted by businesses. “We need people who can analyse and interpret the data that our systems generate, applying it to contexts such as cybersecurity, customer engagement, AI, and automation,” she tells ZDNet.

“On the customer side, we are seeing increasing demand for UX experts, as well as digital experts with strong customer-facing and product development skills. On the technical side, we are seeing an increase in demand for architects with a strong focus on cloud platforms.”

Cybersecurity has also been a predominant issue for businesses that were forced to scale up IT architecture and manage a mass shift of employees from the office to remote working.

Harvey Nash’s research cited cybersecurity as the topmost in-demand skill among IT leaders in both the UK (31%) and US (36%), while City & Guilds’ research found that job advertisements for cybersecurity technicians rose by a giant 19,922% between April 2020 and April 2021.

SEE: The cybersecurity jobs crisis is getting worse, and companies are making basic mistakes with hiring

At the same time as there are more roles available to fewer workers, a dip in interest in tech amongst younger people risks drying up the talent pipeline. According to findings published by the Learning & Work Institute in March 2021, the number of young people in the UK taking IT at GCSE level has dropped 40% since 2015.

Dan Bieler, principle analyst at Forrester, points to a lack of emphasis placed on STEM subjects by European education systems in recent decades.

Bieler says current qualification system models that focus on school and university grades, as opposed to cross-functional skills, are no longer practical for preparing young people for jobs in the coming decade. Instead, firms, universities, and the public sector will need to offer and support lifelong learning.

“Moreover, European businesses must evolve those jobs that are most at risk of automation so that they benefit from automation by freeing up time for more fulfilling, value-added activities,” he says.

“As part of this effort, businesses will need to place greater emphasis on learning and education as part of job development initiatives.”

To this end, Robert Half recently partnered with an organisation on a training programme to retrain people, before placing them in their first industry position. “The aim is to create a steady pipeline of skilled talent, and 25% of the fee we earn from the placement is invested back into the programme, helping to bridge the skills gap in a sustainable way,” says Boden.

Bieler also sees an increased demand for a multi-disciplined technology workforce in the future, particularly as various IT and technology environments merge with the expansion of 5G, cloud and open source. “I would imagine that the real experts will be much more than just technology experts,” he says.

“They will have to really understand business strategy, business environments, business objectives, understand process design, project management, and also be people who understand certain people management and cultural components, because an agile business will be culturally very different from a very traditional, top-down hierarchy-based business.”