Covid-19 and the search for digital talent

It’s hard to find a silver lining to Covid-19 – especially when you consider the state of the UK economy. The pandemic has caused a recession and has wreaked havoc across a range of industries such as manufacturing, aviation and retail.

Women have been badly hit by the pandemic, cancelling any significant gains previously made in the labor force. So too has the UK’s next generation of workers. Youth unemployment in Britain is expected to triple to levels not seen since the 1980s, and there’s a worry that this “Covid generation” could be lost to long periods out of work.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s economics forecaster, warns that the jobless rate for all age groups could top almost 12 percent by the end of 2020 – meaning 4 million unemployed.

Alongside this crisis is the ongoing digital skills shortage, which is greater than ever before, and will slow down our ability to rebuild the economy and maintain our position as a global tech leader.

Yet this may be where we find our silver lining. The pandemic has created an unprecedented situation where millions face the prospect of job loss. Others have used this crisis as a time to reflect on a career change.  The time is now to bring this untapped pool of prospective talent into the industry to help address the skills crisis and achieve a step change in diversity.

This is a chance for tech employers that are hiring to recruit exceptional people from diverse backgrounds who may not have selected software engineering as a first career.

The rapid rise of software engineering bootcamps in recent years reveals two essential truths. The first is that people can successfully retrain as software engineers fast. The second is that many people suited to the industry are inappropriately filtered out by the UK’s traditional education system for a range of reasons – a lack of encouragement, opportunity or the right grades.

On the dimension of gender alone, we know that our education system is currently screening out talent. Recent figures show that only 13 percent of computer software graduates in the UK are female.

This means that there are possible software engineers currently working in creative arts, management, human resources and numerous other areas across British companies. Many of them will now be considering their options, looking into industries and roles that they may not previously have seen as for them, investing in training and reskilling. This presents an opportunity for tech recruitment.

Research shows clearly that diverse backgrounds reduce groupthink, improve innovation and improve outcomes. A recent Boston Consulting Group study showed that companies with more diverse management teams have 19 percent higher revenues.

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At the same time that the talent pool is becoming available, many of the practical barriers to recruiting diverse talent are evaporating. The government’s Plan for Jobs recently boosted apprenticeships. Training is rapidly moving online, providing the opportunity for people across the UK to participate in vocational training. The importance of physical location is diminishing enabling a fairer geographic distribution of not only remote training but also remote work opportunities.

The economic and employment challenges today present a unique opportunity for UK tech to recruit the best talent from new industries, geographies and backgrounds. A new generation of tech talent with the power to turbocharge performance could be on the make. Brave recruiting today will yield business results tomorrow and help to speed up our economic recovery.

Practical next steps

So how can we help businesses find and benefit from this high quality, diverse talent? Recruiting needs to be done differently to yield different results

Look in new places

Businesses often stick to the same formula when looking for new employees. If they want to find people from different backgrounds, they won’t necessarily find them in the same way in which they found their previous staff.

The usual routes usually include university career fairs, alumni meetups, newspaper adverts, LinkedIn, head hunters and conferences. There are plenty of candidates across different untapped industries who simply won’t be found this way.

To tap into a different talent pool, leaders should use other forms of communication channels and forums.  Here at Makers we’ve forged partnerships with community groups such as Coding Black Females, codebar, and Women Who Code. These groups are often one of the first places that aspiring talent will turn for peer support and guidance on entering a new industry.

Don’t look at qualifications and keep adverts simple

Don’t look at qualifications and previous educational training when selecting candidates – especially in areas such as computer science, where women are underrepresented in the classroom.

 Also focusing on top universities excludes those from disadvantaged and ethnic backgrounds. A better way to assess candidates is to create tests that identify the talent you need and figure out what the success factors are and determine from there whether candidates have the winning formula to join the team.

If you advertise for a role, keep the language simple, accessible and gender-neutral to attract a wide pool of candidates for a new role.  Jobseekers simply won’t apply if they feel they don’t qualify for a position.

Having a long list of “requirements” should be avoided at all costs if you want more women to consider a job vacancy.  Studies have shown that men will go for a role if they have 60 percent of the listed criteria, whereas women will only apply if they meet all of them. 

Using gender-charged words will also prevent many great candidates from applying. “Analyze”, “problem solver” and “determined” and “competitive” appeals to men, while words such as “collaborate”, “teamwork”, and “support” attract more women.

Job adverts that contain gender-neutral keywords can lead to an increase in applicant numbers and a more even split between men and women, as well as being more appealing to minorities; up to 42 percent more attractive.

Prepare to interview candidates – and get your colleagues  involved 

Employers expect job seekers to prepare for interviews, but so should they. Drawing up a list of questions in advance will help to target bias head-on – and keep a level of formality throughout the process.  Studies show that companies usually look for a reflection of themselves in candidates – and will more likely hire them if they don’t conduct structured interviews and have a chat that keeps them in a comfortable, social ‘safe zone’. This approach to recruitment only perpetuates the ongoing and prevalent gender, racial and socioeconomic gap in male-dominated industries such as tech.

Having questions prepared ahead of time, and evaluating the responses of the different candidates with your colleagues collectively helps to decide which applicant has the potential to perform well in the role.  Feedback from colleagues should be submitted ahead of time before a group discussion as well to avoid coercion of one’s responses by the forces of group pressure. 

Looking to the future

The digital skills gap continues to loom large in the UK as does the lack of diversity. Covid-19 has done a lot to undermine our economic growth – but the risks from not having a robust digital workforce also present significant challenges for our economic future.

The ability to fill digital vacancies will only get worse with Brexit.  There are now job seekers across the UK dreaming of a career change. Covid-19 gives us the opportunity to discover and to tap into that rich and diverse pool of talent. 

Seizing this opportunity has the potential to create a powerful and positive outcome at a dark time in our history, establishing a new generation of tech talent which can help fuel innovation and ensuring that those who are building our tech future better resemble those for whom they are building it.

Claudia Harris, CEO, Makers

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