Can the tech skills crisis be solved?
An introductory discussion on ways in which we might be able to increase the supply of tech skills to meet the current and increasing demand.
In today’s workforce, it is widely known that the demand of tech skills outstrips supply, and the situation is expected more acute in the future. The skills needed are diverse, and touch on virtually all of the key IT/ICT areas: from network administrators and software engineers, to data scientists, information security analysts, and mobile application and web developers.
To varying degrees, countries have been trying to address the problem by integrating computer use in school, in the hope of fostering, at the very least, computer literacy. In the Caribbean, we have been able to take it a step further by teaching dedicated IT subjects at high school, and setting regional examinations in those subjects, both at the ordinary (Grade 11) and advanced (Grades 12 and 13) levels.
However, studying those subjects at the high school level is not mandatory. The few students who gravitate to them are either considering careers in the tech field, or enjoy or have an aptitude for the subjects. Further, the syllabi at those levels are foundational, and tends not to be enough (and rightly so!) to fully prepare students to execute complex specialist work in those areas.
At the tertiary level, and similar to the experience in secondary schools, enrollment in programmes, such as computer programming and computer science, tends to be considerably lower than the more popular subjects, such as those offered in business and economics. As a result, graduate numbers are low, which reflects in the low skills availability and supply.
As it stands, and based on what currently obtains in the school system, it is no surprise that there is a scarcity of tech skills in the market. While this shortage might make careers in the tech field even more lucrative, without the critical mass of skills, it also may result in a slowdown in the rate at which technology continues to evolve, and is adopted.
To begin to remedy this situation will require several types of interventions. Outlined below are two that readily comes to mind.
First, an even greater focus on improving the teaching of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is needed. Frequently, students tend to avoid those subjects later in their school life due to poor teaching of those subjects earlier on. Hence better teaching could lead to increased interest and enrolment in programmes for more advanced study.
It must be emphasised that the above approach, although vital, will take several years before the anticipated improvements will become evident. A more immediate, but also important remedy lies in how we distinguish between skills that individuals can be taught on the job, and those that ought to be nurtured through school.
Essentially, there are broad range of skills an employee needs possess – none of which are specific to an academic discipline – in order to be successful in the workplace (see Figure 1).
It may not be necessary or realistic for individuals to possess all the skills listed, especially with regard to resource management and technical skills, but the remainder are still essential. However, it must be emphasised that academic qualifications are a must, as some of those skills are nurtured through such training, and it also demonstrates an aptitude to learn. Further, an individual’s qualifications, even in a non-tech subject – can enhance the skills and expertise they can bring to bear even when working in a tech position, or within a tech team. For example, graphic design skills can benefit those who work in designing and coding the user aesthetic and experience. Those who might be qualified in neurosciences could be invaluable in an artificial intelligence team.
In summary, as technology continues to touch all aspects of our lives, even our own concept of what it is, how it can be implemented, and what are needed inputs, for example, also needs to evolve. This sophistication will thus also be reflected in what are considered the critical core skills and expertise needed to work in that space, against the support that will subsequently be provided to augment those initial skill sets to more fully satisfy an individual’s role in an organisation.
Image credit: neetalparekh (flickr)