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Addressing the talent shortfall in technology

Anthony Webb, Vice-President EMEA, A10 Networks, discusses the talent shortfall in tech and what employers can do to mitigate it.

Whatever happens to Britain’s relationships with Europe and the wider world in the coming months, it seems certain that the shortage of talent in the UK’s technology industry is set to continue, and potentially worsen. 89% of employers in our sector expect to struggle with a talent shortage this year and by 2022 there is a predicted Europe-wide shortfall of 350,000 skilled staff in cybersecurity alone.

As we face unprecedented disruption, every sector needs to start building a backbone of resilience for the future. It’s often said that the most important resource in a business is its people, and futureproofing our workforce means attracting and nurturing the best possible talent.

This is easier said than done. Anyone who works in recruitment will tell you that the candidate market is changing… rapidly. Gone are the days – which characterised my own early career experience – where you fell into a role and learned as you went along, switching jobs here and there as new opportunities arose and riding the swift wave of technology evolution. Today’s candidates are at the same time more demanding of employers and more cautious about taking chances with their careers and future happiness. Companies in our sector therefore need to think carefully about how we present ourselves to potential employees.

As well as the technical skills required in engineering, programming and cybersecurity roles, the industry requires a strong cohort of business-focused, technologically confident sales managers who are skilled at creating business cases and building trusted long-term relationships that add value for customers.

Embracing changing priorities for career entrants

Historically, we’ve recruited our sales teams from a wide pool of graduates across all disciplines, with a focus on identifying strong communication skills and the analytical ability that translates into strong account management. However, the evolution of the university sector including the introduction of tuition fees is having an interesting effect on young graduates. Having taken a major financial decision early in life, they are sharply focused on achieving a return on their career investment, although not exclusively on a financial basis, as I’ll delve into later.

The introduction of tuition fees is also increasing the number of intelligent young people deciding to leap straight into work to avoid debt and get a head-start on their careers. These candidates are a rich source of talent for employers if they can be tempted to apply.

For both groups of candidates, I passionately believe it’s down to us to articulate the considerable opportunities and progression that a career in the technology industry offers. Our sector is rich in innovation – it’s the foundation of everything from business and government to leisure and entertainment. With technologies such as 5G coming on stream and the constant challenge of countering cybersecurity threats we work in a fast-paced environment that is in no danger of becoming a career dead-end. That’s important because, with so many sectors experiencing disruption, career entrants want to know that they’re choosing an industry that thrives on innovation and is not overwhelmed by it.

Attracting talent is one thing, retaining it is another…

Talent retention is key if looking to build a talent pipeline, and this is where I think we need to look at the shifting working styles and preferences that now exist in the workplace. Companies need to ensure they create an environment that new entrants want to be in, and crucially, stay in. This isn’t going to be a clichéd “anti-millennial rant” – far from it. The fact is that today’s workplace is multi-generational and the industry needs to recognise and adapt to that.

It’s not surprising that Generation Z employees feel little in common with their baby boomer and even millennial colleagues – the worlds that they grew up in are vastly different. This has led to some distinct generational variations in preferred forms of communication and working styles.

Take for example this recent article looking at preferences around using phones for voice calls. Workers from younger generations show a distinct bias towards text or visual-based communications – a far cry from the “hitting the phones” sales tactics of the past. We also need to consider that, if we’re selling to customers that prefer communications through different channels, the phone might not be the best way to reach them… perhaps the traditional tension between sales and marketing can finally be resolved with this revelation!

More seriously, though, as employers we need to help the generations coexist, embracing the attitude that everyone can learn from each other. This means genuinely flexible working practices enabling employees to work effectively while remote, as well as office spaces that give options supporting diverse working styles – quiet and focused, open and consultative – and hybrids of the two.

The end of the linear career

The days of the linear career are over. It’s predicted that those entering the workforce today will change careers multiple times and learn new skills throughout their working lives. Some will build careers in sectors that didn’t exist while they were at school, so an open attitude and thirst for lifelong learning is essential.

They will also work for longer than any previous generation. That’s why they are looking for job roles that offer a sense of purpose, not just a pay check. While financial considerations still play a part, for “generation rent” – for whom owning big ticket items such as a home are much less relevant than for previous generations – it is frequently the experience of work that is as important as financial reward.

The thing is, our industry offers us all the tools to build that purposeful message for employees. Take A10 Networks, for example. We are specialists in protecting the systems and networks on which the communications of modern life depend. We are laser-focused on preventing malicious actors from achieving their agenda of catastrophic disruption. When designing, developing and marketing our products to customer, we strongly believe that our purpose is to create safer, better networks. For me, that is meaningful work.

As employers within the technology industry, it is important to share a vision of a career that is rewarding in all senses and that means looking beyond financial benefits to the wider ecosystem we want our employees to thrive in. Therefore, building and nurturing talent is a vital part of creating a resilient industry and all organisations should look to make this a priority for 2019 and beyond.