Midtown Big Ideas Exchange hosted a fascinating discussion at the end of January, focusing on the future of work and how to ensure that the future talent pipeline meets the needs of industry – with an emphasis on the needs of a fast growing and rapidly evolving tech sector. There was some debate about the size of the skills gap and the potential impact on employment of technologies like AI and machine learning but there was general agreement that the nature of work and requisite skill requirements was changing at an increasing rate.
Sir Vince Cable pointed out that skills shortages are not just acute in London but also in some of the most depressed areas of the country. The future of Brexit and the uncertainty around free movement, about which Sir Vince wasn’t overly optimistic, would certainly add to the pressure at both ends of the spectrum –both low and high skill levels. A shortage of suitably skilled talent in the context of relatively low unemployment requires immediate focus and attention.
Addressing the skills gap requires a broad focus, an open mind and the breaking down of barriers to entry, particularly with regards to young people, women and underrepresented groups across the tech sector. Women, for example, are a crucial source of talent and old style working practices and perspectives on recruitment meant that companies are losing out. As noted by Gillian Nissim, Founder of workingmums.co.uk, flexible working for the whole of the workforce and mechanisms like returnships are indicative of a company that has embraced cultural change and is not simply treating it as a new ‘perk’.
There was some debate over whether universities are or aren’t producing sufficiently work-ready graduates. What was clear was that industry and post-secondary education need closer collaboration. There is clearly a role for government to help broker those relationships and support better outcomes through old tried and tested mechanisms such as school-based careers advice and guidance. Unfortunately, as noted by a number of speakers, those mechanisms have largely been destroyed.
This issue, however, is bigger than advice or obsessing about target grades for maths and English GCSEs. As Jack Parsons, CEO of the Big Youth Group pointed out, ‘young people don’t know what they don’t know’. Ensuring the right curriculum is important but ensuring that young people have a variety of options/pathways into work is crucial. Substantive work experience programmes and not just the two weeks required at the start of year 11, can open the eyes of young people and allow them to experience a range of future career opportunities.
Focusing specifically on the tech sector, a number of panellists noted the need to shift away from a university only mindset and emphasize a diversity of pathways into industry. That said, most panellists were pretty optimistic about a tech enhanced future workplace but noted a need for a shift to a lifelong learning. Tight labour markets tend to support a change in approach and open minds but the one group about whom many expressed concern was the 50+ labour force who may well find the new tech driven roles harder to move into with out a supportive re-training push.
What came through loud and clear was that the skills gap ranged from baristas to barristers but that the biggest gap of all was in computer science. As the doorway to European talent closes, platforms that can bring together the key stakeholders to address the needs of industry have an increasingly important role to play. Now if only there was a festival aimed at doing just that…