Tech jobs have an image problem, and it's making the skills shortage worse

Young people are increasingly shunning tech jobs and IT-related subjects at school. If we want to fix the growing skills shortage, we have to make technology careers more appealing.

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Getting more young people interested in technology is crucial to bridging the skills gap.

Image: Thomas Barwick/Getty

Tech has an image problem. Not only does the industry suffer from a chronic shortage of older workers, but educators and employees are failing to sell tech as an exciting – or even feasible – option for young people.

Right now, young people – particularly Gen Z – typically do not see professions in data or computer science as particularly glamorous. A report by analytics provider Exasol in June found that less than half (49%) viewed data science as a viable career option, a conclusion largely blamed on employers, educators and the wider technology industry doing a poor job at making it sound like a field worth pursuing.

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Compounding the issue is the fact that data science is steeped in technical jargon – terms like "data literacy" and "algorithm" are unlikely to get anyone excited, let alone a generation that has grown up on a diet of smartphones and disposable media. If you can't explain the building blocks of tech in terms that appeal to the aspirations of a 21-year-old, you can hardly expect their eyes to light up in wonderment at the notion of growing up to become a database administrator or machine-learning engineer.

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The problem runs deeper than just semantics: in schools, there is evidence that technology is still being prioritised beneath traditional subjects like maths and science, despite the fact that technology is rapidly permeating every corner of industry – education included.

According to a recent survey of 1,000 16-24-year-olds in the UK by Accenture, only 24% feel confident that they'll be able to secure a career in technology in the future – even though 42% of young people acknowledge there will be more tech jobs available because of COVID-19. What does this say about the way we are positioning technology as an achievable career prospect to those the industry needs most?

Even worse: Accenture found that, while more young women than men reported having good digital skills (44% vs 40%), they were less confident they could secure a job in tech compared to their male counterparts (20% vs 29%).

"If the digital native generation is not turning to technology as a career option, then we have a huge pipeline problem for the technology profession," notes Shaheen Sayed, Accenture's technology lead for UK & Ireland.

"Young people know technology is completely redefining the world right now – but their lack of confidence in securing a tech job indicates a worrying disconnect between young people, particularly girls, and a changing jobs market."

Outside of rethinking curriculums and qualifications, which could take time to bring about meaningful change, new approaches in ways of working could help extend the appeal of tech jobs to young workers in the near term.

The pandemic has provided a catalyst for this change. Following more than a year of remote working becoming the default for many desk-based workers, the tech world shows signs of shifting, placing greater importance on a work-life balance and blending the benefits of working in the office and at home.

Gen Z seems particularly keen on the notion of this hybrid-style working. A survey of 1,000 21-24-year-olds by tech company Kettle found that 65% said hybrid working was important to their decision when considering an employer, with nearly 70% saying they'd pick an employer who offered hybrid work over one that did not. Meanwhile, almost half (47%) said they would leave their job if their employer didn't offer hybrid or remote work options.

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It's difficult to say how much of this is the bravado of youth, but there's no arguing that businesses, schools and academic institutions all have an important part to play in filling the digital skills gap, by keeping the supply of young people in tech flowing. The digital skills crisis will continue to get worse as digital transformation expands throughout industries and business sectors, and currently we're not doing enough to make the field attractive, understandable or enticing to the generation that will determine its future.

It's easy to roll your eyes at the notion that employers and educations need to 'get with the times' when it comes to selling technology as a career choice, but the responsibility of getting young people interested in tech ultimately falls upon the shoulders of those with the influence to do so. Technology moves fast, so it only makes sense that the language and culture around it moves just as quickly.