Why the tech skills gap is not (just) a pipeline problem

Anna Smith, April 21, 2017 4 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Anna Smith wrote her first line of code in October 2015 and secured a job as a software engineer at the BBC a year later. A former criminal defence lawyer, she remains committed to addressing important social issues – volunteering as a tutor at CodeFirst:Girls and providing digital skills to prisoners across the UK with Code 4000.

Here she looks at some of the issues we’ll address at our Digital Jobs Action Summit on April 27th in Leeds. Free tickets are available now.

We know that the UK faces a major tech skills gap. But is it really just a pipeline problem or is tech recruitment also at fault? As someone who has recently navigated a career transition (from lawyer to software engineer via a coding bootcamp), I have some insight into the problems at play.

The issues are complex and highly nuanced, but for the purposes of conciseness (and at the risk of oversimplification), I would argue that at the core of the problem is industry accessibility. Traditionally, and for many companies this approach unfortunately prevails, a computer science degree is the accepted industry pre-requisite for entry. However, it is not always the case that computer science graduates are the best people for the job.

The catalyst for a career change

I started coding in late 2016 as a participant of CodeFirst:Girls. I have to admit that prior to this experience I had been naive to the breadth of opportunities available within the digital sector, and had (wrongly) perceived that there was not a space for me there.

Initiatives such as CodeFirst:Girls do so much more than providing a valuable coding education to young women; they demonstrate to them, through their instructors, through guest speakers and a valuable and growing network, that they too can pursue a career in tech. For me (as it has done for many of its’ graduates), my experience at CodeFirst:Girls served as the catalyst for a career change.

Frustrated by the lack of progress I could make through self-learning around my work commitments, I eventually chose to leave behind my legal career and study at Makers Academy, an immersive coding bootcamp.

I appreciate that for many, the costs of such a bootcamp, without the assistance of loans or scholarships, is prohibitive and this is, of course, problematic. There are, however, a growing number of means through which people can acquire a coding education through self-learning. However, even for those who reach a level of skill required for entry into the profession, there are yet more obstacles.

The experience gate

The barrier for entry into the industry increases through the failure of companies to invest in junior talent. This is demonstrated through the asymmetry in ‘number of years experience’ often required for ‘entry-level’ roles. I often see companies lean towards specifying the need for one or two years of experience (usually alongside a computer science degree), without realising how detrimental this can be to the talent pipeline.

Disproportionate demands and specifications serve only to discourage able applicants from applying and reinforce the, now outdated, notion that there is one traditional route into the industry. Businesses can address the skills shortage if they commit to train people. They must invest in talent by encouraging able juniors (regardless of their educational background) into roles in which they can learn and continue to develop.

If the industry continues to embrace more meritocratic hiring practices, then a digital career will become a more attractive and more viable option for greater numbers of people. However, there is an even more worrying aspect to a continued adherence to such arbitrary job specifications when considered in the context of gender diversity.

Women are less likely to apply for jobs when they consider that they do not have the requisite experience or possess all of skills stipulated within the job description. Men are more likely to apply regardless. Understood in these terms, an insistence on such stringent specifications functions not only to constrict an already insufficient pipeline, it also serves to perpetuate the problem of gender disparity in tech.

Unconscious bias

There are additional problems with tech recruitment processes that may seem to present further barriers to entry for women. Specifically, unconscious bias affects the language in job descriptions. The ‘tech test’ is a key component of the recruitment process for developers. This is a matter of contention in the tech world because often what is assessed does not resemble the work that a candidate would do if they got the job.

The gamification aspect of this type of test also favours male applicants, as they are socialised to perform better at such tasks. It is arguably a broken process for everyone, but the failings hit underrepresented groups the hardest. Confidence-based attrition makes women seven times more likely to stop practising for technical interviews than men.

Time for a cultural shift

Discussions about the tech ‘pipeline problem’ often serve as the backdrop (as in this blog) for debate surrounding the tech ‘diversity problem’. In my opinion, the two are inextricably linked and we must deal with them together. In both cases we must be wary and remember that fixing the pipeline will not better the situation if there is not retention of talent.

The problem is not (only) with the pipeline, but with the industry that it is serving. The tech industry needs to recognise that only a significant cultural shift will attract and retain the workforce it requires.

While the reformation of coding education has begun, companies need now to take responsibility for changing their hiring approaches and company culture. That will make a career in tech a more accessible and more attractive option to all.

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Guest Posts, Hiring, skills, talent, Women in tech, Leeds, Yorkshire