The digital skills gap in the UK is well documented, with employers struggling to fill 43 per cent of STEM vacancies, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and the Federation of Small Businesses reporting that 22 per cent of business owners think a lack of digital skills is holding them back.
But what if the biggest issue isn’t simply a lack of supply, but one of outdated recruitment processes and attitudes blocking access to the wealth of young digital talent seeking to get a foot on the career ladder?
The generation currently entering working age are the first true digital natives. They have never known life without tablets and smartphones, but most importantly they are empowered by digital technology.
From learning to code through so-called How To videos on YouTube, fundraising on Kickstarter, selling goods on Etsy, and social media management and self-promotion on Instagram, they are teaching themselves many of the critical digital skills that businesses need.
Much of their digital knowledge doesn’t come from the classroom, and the biggest mistake we could make is to reject them based on their lack of educational STEM qualifications.
But in many cases they are being rejected, and their response is to spurn traditional routes to employment.
The latest stats show that the number of young people applying for university is down four per cent, and at the same time we’re seeing record numbers of young people set up businesses – in 2017, the number of company directors under 30 broke the 300,000 mark for the first time.
So what should companies be doing to find, attract, and harness this new generation of digital talent?
Removing social bias and placing less focus on academic achievement is a great place to start.
EY has recently removed academic qualifications from its entry criteria in order to find the very best talent, massively broadening the diversity of applicants as a result.
Only 18 per cent of its 2017 applicants would have been eligible under the old model.
It’s also important to look beyond traditional recruitment tools such as graduate fairs and careers websites.
For Dyson, we attracted talent using a cryptic recruitment puzzle on Reddit.
For internet company Nominet’s Digital Neighbourhood programme, we work with local youth networks to find young digital talent and connect them with SMEs in their area for consultation work, helping businesses with their digital strategy, and providing young people with on-the-job training and experience.
By far the most important step to allow young digital talent to flourish is to adapt processes and resources to enable them to succeed – either internally or through working with partners.
Digify is a Greater London Authority-funded programme run by Livity, which recruits diverse digital talent, trains them to hone their innate digital skills and knowledge, then places them in tailored six-month placements at the likes of Sky and Sainsbury’s specifically designed to make the most of their talent.
If businesses want digitally talented people who can bring innovation and divergent thinking, they need to match this with a willingness to embrace change themselves.