Utilising L&D as a productivity enabler amidst ongoing job losses and a recession
By Laura Baldwin, President at O'Reilly
May 10 2023 - The tech industry has been under a cloud of negativity due to the barrage of layoffs over the past six months. According to the BBC, jobs in the formerly dependable technology sector are being cut at the second-fastest rate ever - even as a growing number of leading-edge new technology projects are receiving funding as part of new government plans that aim to secure the UK's position as a superpower in science and technology by 2030.
Ultimately, new technologies demand fresh expertise. But recent O'Reilly research has revealed that the growing demand for technical knowledge in the UK is creating a shortage of skilled workers. Although some of the geographic and work-life restrictions on the labour pool have been reduced by more flexible working arrangements, open jobs are still outpacing recruitment in crucial fields like cybersecurity, software architecture, and data analysis.
Due to the current economic downturn, many tech companies are looking for ways to reduce spending - a key driver of the recent glut of layoffs. But job market churn won't by itself create the surplus of talent organisations need, and the hiring process is still difficult. And while it's true that workers tend to stay in their current jobs when there are fewer new opportunities available, it's not easy to replace them if they do leave.
British tech companies must reconsider how they'll fill talent gaps in order to boost productivity at a time when it's nearly impossible to find people with the necessary skills. You can no longer hire your way to success. So technical talent retention and retraining are essential - especially in light of recent economic volatility. And that means reskilling the teams you already have to achieve specific business goals. It's also crucial for maintaining the UK's tech sector's competitiveness on a national and international level, which is perhaps even more important.
To keep employees, put an emphasis on retraining them
Career pathing and development will help tech companies retain their key people and sustain momentum when adopting innovative new technology. (In fact, the most recent CIPD research suggests that UK workers are increasingly interested in working for companies that offer clear opportunities for career development.) But to do so effectively, organisations must first have a firm grasp of their corporate objectives so that they can identify skills gaps within teams that may cause roadblocks in achieving their goals.
With a clear understanding of a team's strengths and weaknesses, companies can create customised training plans that target their specific development needs. While many organisations plan to increase spend on in-demand skills such as cybersecurity, software architecture, and data analysis, they should also help teams to develop soft skills like communication, teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving. These skills are often just as important as technical expertise and can help team members become more effective in their roles.
Continuous learning 'in the flow of work'
Tech companies must create a culture of continuous learning within their organisations - encouraging team members to take on new challenges, seek out opportunities for growth, and share their knowledge with others. Not only will this help employees to stay engaged and motivated, but it will also foster a sense of community and collaboration within teams and the wider company.
A culture of continuous learning must recognize that learning doesn't just happen through prescribed tasks such as reading a book or completing a course. It occurs in all the little ways team members develop their skills throughout the day. Human resources and leadership advisor and analyst Josh Bersin coined the phrase 'learning in the flow of work' to refer to a paradigm in which users learn something, apply it, and then go back to what they were working on. The 'learning in the flow of work' approach empowers employees by providing them with the tools to quickly locate contextually relevant answers to their questions at their point of need.
This is different from traditional learning approaches (attending a seminar to build knowledge around a desired topic, for example). Those have their place, but many employees simply don't have the time to dedicate to them, particularly during the workday. In fact, approximately 50% of all learning interactions from those in the technical community (software engineers, analysts, and other technical professionals) are for 'in the moment of need' technical support. These employees aren't necessarily looking for a deep dive; they want to pinpoint information, find technical answers, examine code snippets, or get quick solutions to overcome the obstacles they face at any given moment. This prevents workers from getting bogged down while completing their day-to-day tasks and keeps them focused on high-value, business-critical projects.
By empowering their teams to learn in the flow of work, organisations will also help to promote innovation - and that's what drives business forward. For best results, organisations should consider offering 'in the flow of work' training opportunities via a quality L&D partner that can tailor materials to individuals' unique learning styles and objectives.
Upskilling employees without a university degree
Finally, consider that even if university application and graduation rates continue to rise (and it's not clear they will), the UK may still face a huge talent shortage, brought on in part by increased demand for technical skills that graduates may not learn in their coursework. Therefore, tech companies will need to take on more of the burden of educating their workforce to develop the talent they need.
This will require organisations to evaluate their skills requirements, recruitment strategies, and on-the-job education policies. If there's a "mismatch between the skills employers are seeking and how students are being prepared for the workforce within their learning settings," as TechRadar has recently suggested, perhaps employers should relax degree requirements. Many leading tech companies, including Google, Netflix, Tesla, IBM, and Apple, have already done so. Once onboard, these employees will have broader training requirements that might extend beyond specific role-based skills. Businesses will need to facilitate learning in communication, collaboration, writing, and critical thinking too.
The solution lies in maintaining and retraining technical talent
Technologically driven change is accelerating. But so too are the demands on businesses to boost productivity and maintain their competitiveness in the face of a widening technical skills gap - while cutting costs in the process. Critical skills gaps must be filled, which calls for increased investment in training and learning strategies (especially those that give workers the chance to learn while doing their jobs). And enduring success will likely depend on creating an organisational culture that values lifelong learning and makes sure teams can develop the skills they need to function well in the face of constant change.
So think outside the box when investing in the development of your employees, whether it's considering alternative educational paths, such as hiring and then training workers without a college degree, or upskilling your current labour pool (or, more likely, both and more). By doing so, organisations can retain their top talent and set themselves up for long-term success in the face of economic volatility and technological disruption.