How to close the tech skills gap

As technology evolves, the demand for advanced skills will only increase—unless we find ways to catch up.

Where the tech talent gaps truly exist David Klapaak, director of program management for Interapt, discusses how the Internet of Things and other technologies will lead to more skills gaps.

Society is facing a tech skills gap where, according to Daily Infographic, there are 17% more job openings than available workers in the market. Seventy percent of executives say current employees lack tech and computer skills; and only 11% of business leaders say they're confident that college grads will be prepared for the workplace.

A tech skills gap is understandable given the pace of new technology development, and the skill sets required to harness and leverage these advances. A recent Forbes analysis suggested the tech skills gap is actually closing (as of February, 2019), but as technology continues to broaden and evolve in new directions, I expect that gap to widen again.

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Minding the gap

I discussed the situation with Aaron Skonnard, CEO and co-founder of Pluralsight, the enterprise technology skills platform.

Scott Matteson: What primary gaps in tech skills does IT face today?

Aaron Skonnard: Technology is changing faster than ever before. That is great for society; it's tough for technology leaders and developers, as well as the organizations they support. What used to be two programming languages has now ballooned to more than 250. The average software developer has to replace about half of what they know every two years—and a lot of developers aren't able to keep up. From security to the cloud to AI and machine learning, the global skills gap is ubiquitous. This has a significant impact on companies as they try to scale, innovate with new products and services, and compete in the global marketplace.

Scott Matteson: Which gaps cause the most concern?

Aaron Skonnard: One major example is in cybersecurity. While it's important for developers to stay on top of all facets of the industry, the fast pace of technological change in cybersecurity and the resulting skills gap can leave organizations—their customers and employees—vulnerable to attack. The "it's not if, but when" mindset is outdated. The best practice for companies today is to assume they're constantly under attack and to develop a bench of cybersecurity experts to meet these threats head on.

Having a skills gap in your developer or enterprise teams is going to put you behind the eight ball and at a disadvantage to the competition. Worse, having a skills gap in cybersecurity could result in a major data breach. We've all seen the fallout that comes with large data breaches, and even small hacks can have far-reaching effects. Closing the skills gap in cybersecurity is vital to protecting your company's reputation and the business itself.

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Scott Matteson: What causes these gaps?

Aaron Skonnard: There's no single cause of the global technology skills gaps, and there is not one single point in time to trace its roots to. The simple truth is technology changes so fast and so dramatically that it's difficult to keep up. The main outcome of the global skills gap is disruption. If you don't overcome the skills gap, and your competitors do, you will be disrupted.

A generation or two ago, the knowledge and skills a person learned in school would serve them for their entire career. That's no longer the case. For example, it seems impossible now to think about a world not driven by smartphones and mobile access. Yet the original iPhone was only released in 2007. There have been dozens of updates since then, and now it's hard to imagine relying on that original technology when the newer versions can do so much more. Training and skill development are the same. We wouldn't rely on ten-year-old technology to run a business, so why would we depend on ten-year-old knowledge?

As technology continues to march forward, the demand for advanced skills will only increase. A recent paper from the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that the time workers spend using advanced technological skills will increase by 50% in the US and 41% in Europe through 2030, and the need for advanced IT and programming skills could grow as much as 90% in that time. Thinking of the world we can build in this evolving landscape is exciting, but the constant change is also going to require continuous learning.

What's being done?

Scott Matteson: What are IT workers doing (or should be doing)?

Aaron Skonnard: There is an overwhelming number of empty tech positions because of the skills gap—over a half million in the US alone. It's tempting to look at that with a mindset of, "Which positions need to be filled?"

What we should be asking is, "How can we upskill and reskill our current people?" Few positions are impossible to staff. However, a lot of those positions do require skills in programming languages such as JavaScript and Python. These open-source languages change at a rapid pace—and it can be tough to keep up. The reality is rapid, nonstop advancements in IT architecture, big data, cloud technologies and security solutions are being incorporated into businesses of all sizes faster than workers can learn to use them.

To keep up on these types of quick-changing skills, tech professionals need to stay sharp by adopting the mindset of being lifelong learners and use every tool at their disposal. Resources like conferences and networking gatherings have existed just about as long as the industry itself. Go to these events. Learn from others. Continuous learning and education shouldn't be reserved for those occasions, though. Seek out other technology skill development tools to hone your skills.

Scott Matteson: What are businesses doing (or should be doing)?

Aaron Skonnard: Retaining—and reskilling—team members should be the first step to succeed in the digital era. I think there's a real fallacy in thinking the next hire is miraculously going to solve any organization's skills gap. It's true that someone fresh out of college might have more up-to-date programming skills; however, it takes far less time to reskill an existing employee than it does to hire and onboard a new one.

Companies need to provide their teams with open access to technology learning solutions. Many options are available. Find the one that fits your company's needs and workforce, and encourage and regularly talk with employees about what they're learning and how they're applying it to close the skills gap.

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Scott Matteson: What are governments doing (or should be doing)?

Aaron Skonnard: The rapid expansion and development of technology means we're enjoying more convenience and innovation in more areas than ever before. It also means more aspects of our everyday lives are affected by the skills gap. From local to state to federal, policymakers across all levels of government should lead the way by investing more in education. This obviously starts with K-12 students, and I'd throw on top of that training programs to empower adults to gain the necessary high-tech skills to compete.

Growing the top of the funnel through greater access to computer science education in K-12 will have a material impact in closing the skills gap. It will also help improve diversity in tech. Advancing computer science education is important not just for the technology industry but all industries. From agriculture to manufacturing to banking to social services, all sectors use technology and will require more employees with a background in computer science. Industry is critically important.

However, the more important point is that it's the right thing to do for students. Computer science is marginalized throughout education despite it increasingly becoming a foundational element of preparing students to succeed in the workforce. We need to change that. It's critical that we equip our students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century.

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