The government has confirmed funding of £36m for a wave of technical bootcamps, paid for out of the National Skills Fund, that are designed to bolster digital and other technical skills and inject a new wave of skilled individuals into the workforce.
Delays in the processs are disappointing – but should only be a small bump in the road. At the same time, the volume of tenders received from training providers is very encouraging – it shows they know the demand is out there and are confident of filling courses up.
I look forward to the scheme getting under way. It could help begin to shift the way we think about technology roles and skillsets which, in the digital era, have changed in significant ways.
In the past, we used to approach most IT roles from a systems perspective – they were about building applications, architecture and systems requiring specific types of technical skills and experience.
But now, with the pandemic accelerating the move to the cloud, this need has shifted much more towards data – we need people who can analyse and interpret data that our systems generate, applying it to contexts such as cyber security, customer engagement, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.
This requirement for data skills – and a shortage of available talent in the external market – is leading some organisations to look at reskilling individuals internally. They may have large data lakes and repositories of information, but lack the people with the data analytical skills to turn that data into actionable insight.
Harvey Nash’s Technology & talent study 2021 showed that the most important areas to help organisations achieve their business goals are software as a service, big data, AI/machine learning and robotic process automation (RPA) – all areas that depend not so much on building new systems as applying coding, data and analytical skills to achieve certain outcomes.
So, the industry needs to recognise this change and ease its obsession with how many years’ experience someone has. In the new cloud-based world, it is much more about whether people have the right aptitude and skillsets that can be applied to today’s data needs.
I commend the government’s bootcamp initiative. This is a brilliant way to equip people who have the right natural affinity, to develop their digital skills. However, to work to maximum effect, I believe that a couple of important criteria will need to be met. We have experience of this ourselves at the Harvey Nash Group in initiatives that we already run in some of our businesses (see box below).
Firstly, it will be key to ensure that individuals accepted onto bootcamps have the right motivation, willingness to learn and a brain that is wired with the kind of analytical skills needed. The recruitment and vetting process is critically important – otherwise, we could see high drop-out or failure rates.
Secondly, one of the really positive potential benefits of bootcamps could be to boost diversity in the tech industry – which, as we all know, is desperately needed. We need to create much better gender balance and, indeed, encourage people from all walks of life and backgrounds into the industry. To do this, it is key that bootcamps are effectively publicised and socialised in diverse communities and across communication channels, so that we see a wide spread of applicants putting themselves forward.
One of the things that always impresses me is the diversity they manage to achieve – ranging from school leavers up to experienced professionals looking to change career tack.
Age diversity could be an important feature as well. Research from the Resolution Foundation shows that the two groups who have suffered most from lost employment due to the pandemic are young people and the over-50s. Bootcamp training providers should have open minds about who they are looking to attract – many mature candidates seeking a new career direction could have the skills, discipline and application that it takes to succeed.
Building better with traditional and new skills
To keep building a digital Britain, it goes without saying that we still need people with in-depth technical degrees and qualifications, as well as seasoned software developers, engineers and others with many years’ experience behind them.
But our skills needs are a case of both/and, not either/or. We need to recognise that today’s cloud-based and emerging technologies are built in a different way from the past – this opens up new possibilities for human talent that we must harness to meet today’s challenges.
In short, we need to view technology roles as not so much about technical IT any more, but about problem-solving and business enablement. I hope that bootcamps and other initiatives like them will be a step along that path.