Demand for developers is soaring - and employers are struggling to hire

The latest data shows that tech workers are in high demand - but the challenge now is to find the right candidates.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Tech jobs have rarely been hotter: job search engine Adzuna has reported that for the past few months, there have been consistently over 100,000 tech job offers per week live on the platform, with one week in May even seeing an unprecedented peak of 132,000 offers.  

The data, which was compiled for the UK government's digital economy council, suggests that the industry is recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic at pace. In comparison, last June saw tech vacancies fall to less than 44,000 offers. 

But according to the council, the new figures aren't only reflective of a strong comeback from a year of crisis. Tech hiring hasn't been this high since 2016. 

SEE: Developers? What developers? Most tech built by people outside of IT by 2024

This is largely due to increasing investment in UK tech companies, says the council. Last year, VC investment reached £11.6 billion ($16 billion); only six months into 2021, UK tech companies have already raised £11 billion ($15.3 billion) in venture funding, putting the industry well on track to surpass previous numbers. In 2019, UK tech companies received a total $13.2 billion.  

"When you look at the amount that has been raised since the end of 2020, the numbers are really consistently strong," Liz Scott, head of entrepreneur engagement at tech networking organization Tech Nation, which is part of the government council, tells ZDNet. "I don't think we are looking at 2021 being strong in comparison to a pandemic year, but at being back to record-breaking numbers." 

This is not the case across the board. A separate report published by advisory company Real Business Rescue shows that the first quarter of 2021 saw 47,000 small and medium IT businesses in significant financial distress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That's a 15% increase compared to the previous quarter, which the organization says is placing 185,000 jobs in IT at risk. 

The healthier numbers reported by the government council, therefore, hide a more complex reality in which not all businesses are thriving.  

As Scott explains, VC investment has abounded for a pool of companies that are showing the most promise; but for many others, the effects of the global health crisis continue to be felt harshly. 

"There is some nuance when you look at the two sides of this coin," says Scott. "There are the tech businesses that are striving and those who have perhaps not managed to adjust and pivot quite as quickly as they might need to." 

When it comes to job seekers, however, the data is clear: the tech companies that are growing are hiring, and fast. And without much surprise, one of the most in-demand jobs across the UK is software developer, for which there were nearly 10,000 vacancies in April 2021 alone.  

Just as popular are AI and data science jobs such as AI engineers or programmers. A recent report from Ipsos Mori found that close to 110,500 job openings were posted in the AI labor market last year – double the number of vacancies registered in 2014 and a 16% increase from 2019. 

With an average salary of almost £59,000 ($82,314), these AI roles are good opportunities, which Scott argues could "absolutely transform people's lives." 

The problem? There aren't nearly enough candidates to fill all of the empty roles. In the AI industry specifically, Ipsos Mori reported that almost seven in ten firms have struggled to fill at least one vacancy in the past two years, typically because of the lack of appropriate skills among applicants. 

SEE: What is a software developer? Everything you need to know about the programmer role and how it is changing

Scott explains that the issue of talent is one of the greatest concerns among decision makers in tech businesses that are scaling fast. 

"It is probably the number one challenge that we hear our founders talk to us about. Often they have gone off and raised this big round, and once the funding campaign is done with, they are really concerned with how they are going to find the next 200 people to grow their organization," says Scott. "We all know access to capital is incredibly important, but this is something we are asked on a daily basis – 'can you help me find the talent that I need.'" 

The rise of remote working is likely to provide some solutions. With almost one in four advertised IT vacancies marked as remote, business leaders can now count on talent from across the country – and even the world – to join their ranks. 

But WFH is also a double-edged sword: leaders in some parts of the country might find that the developers in their region are now able to work for a London-based company with higher salaries, meaning that there is a risk of a national virtual brain-drain, warns Scott. 

Ultimately, the only way to ensure that tech companies find the right candidates is to provide job applicants with the relevant skills. This is something that the UK government is actively investing in: last year, for example, a "Lifetime Skills Guarantee" launched to provide a free college course to adults without an A-level qualification in subjects such as computer science, coding or cybersecurity. 

An online-learning platform called the Skills Toolkit also opened to encourage adults staying at home to build up their skills, ranging from using email and social media to understanding the fundamentals of digital marketing. 

Initiatives abound from the private sector, too: earlier this month, a free two-year coding school founded by entrepreneur Brent Hoberman launched in London, with the promise that students get a guaranteed job at a top tech firm after graduation. Called 01Founders, the institution has partnerships with companies like Peloton, Nominet and Faculty. 

Bootcamps and short courses are also becoming increasingly popular. Google, for example, offers a $200 "professional machine-learning engineer" certification, while IBM has launched a six-course certificate for AI engineering on Coursera.  

SEE: AI and data science jobs are hot. Here's what employers want

These efforts are already showing results, says Scott, and the talent pipeline for tech jobs is expanding; but many challenges remain. 

"There is a more healthy pipeline for entry and junior-level technical talent," says Scott. "But often there is a struggle with that next-level – going from being a developer to supervising or leading a team." 

As tech businesses grow, employers are finding themselves in need of workers that can handle projects in marketing, finance, project management or customer experience. On top of technical skills, therefore, there is increasingly a need for more business-oriented talents in the industry. 

"One of the things I would absolutely love to see more of is the sort of initiative that takes people who are not strictly technical from an IT perspective, who are not data scientists or AI analysts, but have got really important other skills that we know tech businesses need now," says Scott. "The bootcamps and programmes we've got are fantastic, but I want to see that same level of intervention for people who perhaps haven't started out life in the tech sector and want to bring their skills." 

In many ways, this also highlights the need to expand businesses' access to a more diverse pool of candidates, and from all parts of the country.  

The government council's new data shows that London and the South East still have the strongest tech hiring figures in the UK, with the capital boasting around 43,500 vacancies in IT. Regions like the North West and the West Midlands are catching up fast, but Scott insists that initiatives to upskill the workforce will have to reach "everywhere else" too. 

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