Monday, October 23, 2017

The digital skills gap isn’t going away: Here’s what big business can do to fix it

by George Smyth, Director R&D, Rocket Software

Given the rate of technological development and the fact that software interacts with so many different parts of our lives, it would seem like it’s a good time to be a young programmer. Computing makes up the backbone of most companies’ business functions and processes, and the skills gap is consistently acknowledged within the technology industry. Based on this, you could forgive most people for thinking that getting a job in this sector after graduation would be relatively easy.

However, despite the huge demand for computer science skills, 11.7% of graduates remain unemployed six months after completing their degree, which is much higher than other STEM subject degrees such as maths, biological sciences and engineering. Thanks to these concerning figures, in 2016 the UK government commissioned the independent Shadbolt Review to investigate the reasons behind the skills gap and put forward recommendations for how to best address the issue. So, looking at the review and its main findings, where do the challenges lie, and how can we as an industry begin to take positive steps towards solving the skills gap?


Where does the problem stem from?

The Shadbolt Review found that different employers often disagreed on what technical skills computer science students should be taught. For example, it found that some smaller companies, such as start-ups, think grads should have computing skills that reflect the most up to date technology. This has led to a surge in new computer programming languages that support technologies such as the cloud.

But then on the other hand, the review found that big tech companies were more likely to support Higher Education providers that taught the fundamental principles of traditional computer science; languages like COBOL.

The reason behind the demand for COBOL lies in the fact that it is the traditional computing language that was developed alongside the mainframe. Considering the average person ‘touches’ a mainframe every day; whenever we check our bank accounts online, book a train ticket, or request a quote from an energy provider, we are transacting with a mainframe, it’s understandable that companies will want to employ new graduates who can demonstrate COBOL skills.

For example, when looking to hire a young programmer, large enterprises such as IBM are hoping to find graduates who have first and foremost been taught the fundamental principles of computer science. They are then encouraged by the company to learn and adapt to new technologies over the course of their careers.

However, these varying attitudes from employers has resulted in many computer science graduates coming out of university with different computing skills. And this has resulted in a wide and varying skills gap.


Ported tools are part of the solution

A good place to start in rectifying this issue is to adapt current technologies so that COBOL is no longer the only requirement when working on mainframes. This is a great way to bridge the gap between opposing employers’ needs.

“Ported tools” act as translators, which allow the use of languages such as Python, PHP or Java, along with tools such as Git and Bash, to programme a z/OS machine that might once have only recognised COBOL.This way, even graduates who haven’t been taught COBOL, as much as is required by some IT companies, are still able to work on mainframes.


Collaboration is crucial

Developing a clearer view of the skills that companies are looking for is crucial. This can only be done if employers collaborate with each other and agree on a basic course design with Higher Education providers.

What’s more, companies need to form partnerships with universities and students. The Shadbolt Review found that many computer science graduates were lacking in work experience and commercial awareness, which was making them less employable. Clearly there is a disconnect between what employers need, and what universities are teaching. Building meaningful partnerships with universities will allow companies to demonstrate the benefits of practical, working-world knowledge, and to offer short internships and placements to build these skills.


Soft skills are important too

Another finding of the review was that many graduates lacked awareness of the importance of soft skills in the workplace. Employers are increasingly looking for graduates with both the technical requirements, and soft skills including business awareness.

For example, some of the larger companies stated that they tended to interview graduates on the assumption that their degree courses had given them the technical skills needed, and differentiated interviewees based on other skills that were linked to employability, such as problem solving, leadership, and communication skills.

This lack of soft skills is a trend that employers are seeing across all sectors. The best way to address the gap in knowledge is by placing more importance on these skills, while also incorporating more practical lessons into the higher education curriculum.


It’s only up from here

As employers, it’s important that we work together with universities and students to bridge the skills gap and share our expertise on the future of the industry. After all, it is the joint responsibility of everyone involved to do their part in solving the issue by giving graduates the tools they need to succeed in the world of business.