The developer shortage isn't going away, so it's time to start thinking differently

Software developers are in short supply and the UK is facing a digital skills crisis. Is it time for a new approach to recruitment and hiring?

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The UK tech shortage has been made worse by a combination of Brexit and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Image: Dimitri Otis / Getty

As organizations crank up their digital ambitions and put more of their faith (and systems) in the cloud, software developers, solutions architects, cybersecurity specialists and myriad other technology professionals find themselves the subject of a fierce bidding war.

UK businesses have found themselves in a particularly tricky spot. The country's withdrawal from the EU prompted many European developers, who had been working in the UK under freedom of movement rules, to return home or move elsewhere. Then the pandemic struck, placing even more demand on an already limited supply of tech talent.

London-based software development firm DCSL Guidesmiths experienced this first-hand. Prior to 2016, European workers made up the majority of its developer workforce, but this changed after the Brexit vote in June of that year. "After the Brexit vote, we found the interest from the likes of Spain, Greece and Italy – where a great deal of our developers came from – dwindled, and several of our European employees wanted to return to their home countries," CEO Nick Thompson tells ZDNet. 

SEE: Developers wanted: Companies are hiring, and these are skills they're looking for

Businesses were already struggling to hire tech talent prior to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation considerably worse by creating massive demand for digital gateways into businesses, products and services struggling with lockdown restrictions, as well as supporting the collective switch to remote working.

It's, therefore, little surprise that UK developers have become so highly coveted amongst the country's employers. Given their scarce supply, Thompson says organizations need to look beyond traditional hiring efforts. "Companies are now having to think about more than just hiring their own people in a traditional office to get their software delivered – they need to look at both outsourcing, onshore and further afield," he says.

"If you're a company and you're growing, you need fast access to talent. If you need fast access to talent, then you're going to need to outsource it."

According to data from non-profit trade association CompTIA, job advertisements for technology positions represented approximately 13% of total hiring advertisements in Europe during the first quarter of 2021, up from 11% in 2020. Software developers topped this list, with 249,017 job roles posted by employers during the period.

In the UK, it is estimated there will be a need for up to 1.5 million additional people with 'advanced' digital skills in the next two years. And yet, while the UK's tech industry continues to grow at pace, it is estimated that more than half of the country's workforce lacks basic, essential digital skills.

Lowering the barriers of entry 

While there is evidently a lack of available talent, recruitment processes have also been in the spotlight.

Clair Collins, head of products and services for the Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) Campaign, argues that traditional hiring for technology roles excludes candidates from non-tech backgrounds, despite the fact that many possess transferrable skills. Women are disproportionately affected.

"If you insist on a computing undergraduate, the chances are that you're going to attract more men than you are women, because you've got more men taking those undergraduate degrees by quite a significant margin," Collins tells ZDNet.

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Skills, as opposed to qualifications, are a far better determiner of someone's suitability for the job, says Collins. A recent survey of nearly 650 adults by WISE found that approximately half of respondents had landed in their tech jobs via a non-traditional route, be that by upskilling, reskilling, or capitalising on transferrable competencies from non-tech roles: for example, leadership, logic, data analysis and creative problem-solving.

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At the same time, more than half of respondents commented that their non-tech skills, such as communication, were more important in their day-to-day roles than technical programming or coding skills. Collins suggests organizations are hindering their recruitment efforts by excluding candidates who don't possess STEM credentials, when they should instead be focussing on new approaches to recruitment and on-the-job training.

"I think there is a huge barrier for many organizations in terms of the actual job specs and the way in which they are being advertised," she adds. "Experience can be gained on the job; skills are really key – you should look at the skills required for the job, rather than the qualifications."

Developers have long lambasted the arduous interview processes they are subjected to, which often involve multiple drawn-out stages. The relevance of formal programming qualifications has also been called into question now that coding bootcamps can fast-track candidates into employment.

There may even be a case that coding bootcamps are more effective at getting graduates into employment than traditional computer science degrees. An analysis of employment data by tech education resource company SwitchUp found that bootcamps "offer similar, and in some cases higher, in-field employment rates compared to computer science degrees from well-known and respected universities," including UC Berkeley, Brown and Princeton.    

There are a couple of caveats to point out here. SwitchUp notes that bootcamp students often already have college degrees when they enrol, and that computer science majors are more likely to pursue further education. So, while they might not go into employment directly after graduating, they may do after completing further education.

Even so, there's no denying the important role coding bootcamps have played in lowering the barriers to entry into tech.

Making tech jobs more attractive

WISE makes several recommendations for employers looking to grow their tech teams, including creating opportunities for candidates from non-computing backgrounds who want to retrain, as well as increasing the emphasis on transferrable skills in job adverts.

Organizations – both in the UK and elsewhere – also need to work with educators, not just to improve transferrable skills for people coming into the tech workforce, but also to demystify the industry and properly communicate the opportunities a career in technology offers.

"You've got to be honest about the attractiveness of a job in tech. They are really well-paid jobs and they are exciting careers. They really go somewhere," says Collins.

Retaining existing tech talent represents another challenge for businesses. Employees have spent the past two years evaluating their options and are now quitting their jobs in search of more flexibility and better pay – possibly in large numbers.

SEE: Tech workers are preparing to quit. Persuading them to stay won't be easy

Employers will have to work hard to keep their software and IT staff engaged if they want to hang on to them, says Thompson. "Developers need to be surrounded by other developers and skills and expertise so they can learn and grow; they need to be in a supportive environment, one that develops then as their career gives them opportunities to grow," he says. 

Businesses that invest in continual learning and development are more likely to retain their employees and have happy, productive staff. However, Thompson acknowledges this is easier said than done, particularly as organizations spruce up their compensation packages to attract candidates. "It's very hard to give everyone what they really want," he says.

"It's about making it an attractive company to work for, but also having attractive remuneration and the promise of training and career development that not every company can give."