Bridging the coronavirus skills gap

An unidentified person coding on a laptop placed on a bright desk
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

While the coronavirus pandemic may have upended many aspects of our lives, some things, such as the UK being in the grip of a tech skills crisis, haven’t changed.

The latest skills index from Coursera concludes that while Europe is a powerhouse overall – with the top 15 ranked places in both the technology and data science categories going to European nations – the UK lags behind, ranking 23rd and 24th respectively.

The lack of strong data science skills in the country is particularly notable; according to a 2019 report by the Royal Society, demand for data scientists and data engineers in the UK rose 231% in the period 2013-2018, but there has not been an equivalent increase in the number of people able to fill these roles, leading to an ever widening discrepancy in supply and demand.

The tech skills gap isn’t likely to be reduced by COVID-19, either. Speaking to IT Pro about the company’s upcoming CIO survey, Bev White, CEO of Harvey Nash Group, says: “Over the next 12 months, 82% of IT leaders in the UK expect their tech headcount to increase (38%) or stay the same (44%). The top five shortages in tech skills include cybersecurity, enterprise architecture, technical architecture, organisational change management, and cloud.”

The importance of nurturing the right tech jobs is highlighted by Dominic Harvey, director at CWJobs, who tells IT Pro: “Tech continues to demonstrate its importance in helping the UK navigate COVID-19. Companies must ensure they continue to search for the optimal tech skills available both internally and externally to help them survive and then thrive as we emerge out of the current pandemic.”

The importance of businesses’ commitment to digital transformation has also been underscored by the pandemic. While organisations’ roadmaps have in many cases been sped up by the coronavirus pandemic, or even radically altered, they are nevertheless ongoing.

In helping to deal with this upheaval, the advanced technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution come into play. Post-COVID-19, the use of data analytics, automation, machine learning and the DARQ technologiesdistributed ledger technologies (DLT), artificial intelligence (AI), Extended Reality (XR) and Quantum Computing – will all expand.

Andrew Maeer, founder and CEO of Amsource – a specialist technology recruitment consultancy – points to automation in particular as a key source of new tech roles.

“The automation of labour is not a new phenomenon despite the hype, but what is striking is the sheer number of new roles that are likely to be created in the coming years,” Maeer says, pointing to research from Forrester. The company’s Future of the European Job Market report shows that between 15% and 50% of jobs will be affected by automation leading to “an evolution in the types of roles available”, not just in the field of tech, but also increasingly important soft skills.

The COVID tech skills gap

According to a report by the Adecco Group, 14% of the global workforce may need to switch roles in the next 10 years as a direct result of the growth of automation and robotics.

“The 2020 pandemic has made the need to address these skills imbalances more urgent,” the report said.

The question, then, is what skills will be in demand post-COVID-19?

It’s important to note that the growth of new technology fields doesn’t necessarily signify the death of the old and core skills will remain important in creating the next generation of digital products and services.

For example, in addition to the growing need for data scientists and data engineers, one stalwart of the tech skills gap that’s going nowhere is the need for coders.

According to specialist recruitment and assessment firm SHL, which analysed over a million job vacancies in April on LinkedIn, programming skills including Python, C++ and SQL lead the top skills in demand.

Delivering training in a socially-distanced world, however, is an additional challenge to closing the skills gap. There are initiatives that are already seeking to resolve this, though.

Microsoft’s digital skills platform is one example, while Tech London Advocates has launched an Education Resource Hub that is mapping the digital skills ecosystem in the UK and will collate information, advice and resources for educators, young people, parents and employers looking to access digital skills.

Speaking at the launch of the Education Resource Hub, Euan Blair, co-founder and CEO, WhiteHat, said: “Skills training in digital and tech will be an essential part of our economic recovery, because the lockdown has led to twin challenges: Young people looking for work and employers needing those skills more than ever. By widening access to the best opportunities and resources, a more diverse and representative group of people can grasp the benefits of apprenticeships in these critical sectors. That way we will both power the recovery and ensure we're taking real action to tackle social mobility.”

The tech skills gap seen through the lens of COVID-19 reveals that employees will need a range of talents, some of which will be new, with others updated to help them navigate the post-coronavirus working landscape.

For example, they will need to use remote digital communications skills more effectively. Application development skills will remain important as organisations accelerate this component of their businesses. Cybersecurity has also been highlighted as a critical skill needed by everyone from application developers to general office workers.

It is this mix of skills, both new and old, plus the adaptation to working and learning often in a remote setting that will typify the skills needed both while we wait for the COVID crisis to come to an end and in the landscape that emerges afterwards.

David Howell

David Howell is a freelance writer, journalist, broadcaster and content creator helping enterprises communicate.

Focussing on business and technology, he has a particular interest in how enterprises are using technology to connect with their customers using AI, VR and mobile innovation.

His work over the past 30 years has appeared in the national press and a diverse range of business and technology publications. You can follow David on LinkedIn.