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February 7, 2017

Taking a progressive approach to the tech skills shortage

It’s widely accepted that a technical skills shortage grips London. Given our thriving tech sector is driven by emerging technology, it’s not surprising there’s a shortage of skills in key in-demand areas. The moment a sector stands still long enough for early-stage knowledge to become widespread, its ability to generate new, innovative solutions becomes diminished. All ambitious businesses hiring technical staff in London must therefore accept there will always be a concentration of niche skills among a small group of highly sought after individuals. However, this doesn’t mean that if those individuals don’t work for you that you are necessarily at a competitive disadvantage. There are some simple strategies and ways of thinking that can turn this apparent risk into an opportunity.

Think like an Applicant

Firstly think about how hiring managers within your firm view recruiting. Gone are the days when staff joined an organisation for life and were grateful to be employed. Careers are now comprised of multiple, sometimes short-term moves that employees consciously engineer to increase their worth. This is an unquestionable tenet of London’s tech employment market, but is yet to become a key driver for how hiring managers approach recruitment. Most of your firm’s competitors will still have the mindset that employees and job seekers should be grateful for opportunities. As such, they fail to approach hiring from the point of view of the career-savvy professional, flooded with opportunities to progress their career and increase their worth.

Step one in beating the skills shortage? Develop a narrow definition of your target hire and tailor each vacancy to exactly match their immediate and long term career goals.

Assume common responsibility for skills development

Secondly, businesses hold mutual responsibility for the creation and maintenance of quality talent pools. The less each employer gives to that pool, the less they can expect to take out of it. If all businesses adopt the approach of hiring for the exact skills profile they want right now, without cultivating the development of in-demand knowledge themselves, the bar will never be raised.

Target excellence in generic skills over specific abilities

There are huge benefits to under-hiring into roles. It gives your firm access to the most valuable pool of talent in London – those capable of picking things up quickly, communicating superbly and solving problems faster than 90% of their peers. Most businesses cut themselves off from this pool of talent by producing buzzword-heavy role descriptions. Many of the skills listed are either not needed at all, or could be learned fast by a new employee screened for key competencies in learning, communication and enthusiasm. The danger alienating those you really should be hiring on the misguided assumption that strong learning and communication skills are a given in engineering. They are not – they are at a huge premium.

Put buzzwords into context

The key reason vacancies remain unfilled is the inclusion of unconsidered jargon that limits the available talent pool. For example, if you insist on hiring for a .NET Engineer with experience of Xamarin, because this person will build mobile applications in the first six months of their employment, you have just eliminated 98% of the .NET employment marketplace from your search. If you then accept that only 10% of that market are generically high-skilled, your chances of making a great hire mean pulling from 0.2% of the full talent pool. Alternatively, by viewing Xamarin as a framework that any skilled C# Engineer with strong learning competencies should be quickly comfortable with, you open up that special 10% talent pool.

An employee is for life not just for Christmas

What happens if you do manage to hire a skilled Xamarin Engineer without spending £600 per day on a contractor? After six months the initial Xamarin project is done, they get moved to another project and are no longer using one of their most marketable skills. Why would they stay? The answer is, they won’t. They will move to a business where they can continue using the skill you initially hired them for.

However, if you hire an individual and they gain a new skill with you, their focus is longer term and they’re incentivised to stay and continue to develop. You can move them from project to project and keep them stimulated because you hired them for the long term and they’re continuing to learn. Smart under-recruiting means that a firm’s permanent employees can grow with the business. It builds loyalty and fosters a culture focused on the retention of generically skilled employees, rather than one of short term hiring that results in a perpetual knowledge drain and endless recruitment.

Reputation is everything

Another added benefit to under-hiring is the positive impact it can have on your reputation as an employer. If you’re investing in the development of employees who stick around for the long term, you can expect to stand out as a great employer and significantly increase speculative applications from high-skill individuals. If you adopt a flexible hiring policy that enables you to maximise appointments made from this kind of approach, you can save considerable spend on recruitment fees and reduce time spent interviewing.

Take a balanced view of risk at Interview

On the subject of interview, it is worth considering a wider set of very specific objectives. Of course it’s a risk to hire an individual who may not have exactly the right skills – but consider the far greater risk of ongoing interviewing and the position still remaining unfilled. The sheer hours of engineering time being lost on vetting are typically disproportionate to the risk of hiring someone who requires a little polishing – something the team could easily achieve instead of attending yet more interviews.

One of the most common reasons for someone not working out isn’t their skill level, it’s their enthusiasm. An applicant’s enthusiasm can be greatly enhanced by informal, relaxed interview processes that quickly get to crux of the role while building a solid two-way relationship. Asking someone to perform a four hour test in their own time may tell you they are willing to commit four hours to your company, but it won’t help you sell your supportive culture or super-bright employees to them in the same way that a one hour paired programming exercise during an interview will.

In summary, skilled engineers are looking for giving, personable employers invested in them. By employing a little strategic thinking to become one you can use the technical skill shortage to your advantage, benefitting your organisation, your staff and the wider tech ecosystem.

Post produced in partnership with Talent Point.

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