Friday 30 July 2021 6:00 am

Salesforce CEO: We need to hire based on skills, not university degrees

Zahra Bahrololoumi is CEO of Salesforce UK and Ireland

Employment figures released by the Office for National Statistics this month were a bittersweet pill. On the one hand, there is optimism: vacancies have exceeded pre-pandemic levels, the number of employees on payroll is up and unemployment is down. But the other side of the coin is difficult to tackle: there simply aren’t enough people with the skills to do the jobs we need.

Digital skills have come into much sharper focus for organisations of all sizes, across all sectors. Nine out of ten UK workers will need to learn digital skills to do their jobs by 2030 – at a cost of £1.3bn a year, according to new research from IDC and Salesforce.

The urgency for intervention from the government, and in fact all stakeholders, to tackle the widening digital skills gap is clear. To do this, we also need to tackle misconceptions of what buzzwords such as “upskilling or “re-skilling” mean. This is not about everyone having to gain a formal digital education to become computer programmers or coders. It is about employees being comfortable using data and applications like the ones found on our phones. For the majority of jobs in the new digital economy, this will be a core requirement for the future, if it isn’t already.

Digital skills are a gateway into so many jobs and are not a complicated learning process. Job roles in sales, marketing, customer service, accounting, HR, and product/service development are increasingly dependent on technology.

Next year nearly two-thirds of global GDP will be driven by digitised products and services. In May 2021, at the time of Salesforce’s research, the UK had 181,000 customer-facing job roles that required some form of digital skills.

Emerging technologies such as blockchain and AI are amplifying business’ demand for these skills – by up to 50 per cent in Europe and the US, according to McKinsey. In turn, the shift to remote working has accelerated the use of technologies such as cloud computing and online collaboration.

It is important to recognise that there is no single skills gap and no one-size-fits-all approach. Businesses need to work closely with governments and community stakeholders to ensure the training available matches the demand, rather than focusing on a wholesale sweep of “digital skills”. That way, we can prioritise investment for particular initiatives or projects which will help workers gain real jobs and fill the roles we need not just for now but for the future. 

Peer-to-peer and community learning will go further than prescriptive courses. It will enable employees to continuously learn new digital skills, rather than do it once and never again. 

As this shifts, businesses should be looking to change the way they hire, with far less focus on traditional education and more on the skills they already possess and those they are willing to learn. This will open digital roles up to a wider and more diverse talent pool, enabling companies to develop both a more productive and more open workforce. 

Unnecessary barriers are always there, especially for people from lower socioeconomic groups. Businesses need to make sure it is as easy as possible for both current and prospective employees to learn more skills, for example, by giving them access to free online courses. At Salesforce, we’ve done this ourselves by introducing Trailhead, which aims to transform peoples’ technical knowledge in a short space of time. 

Technology has played a crucial role in helping us to work and connect with each other through the pandemic. This will have a legacy. The pace of digital transformation has hastened and we are at an inflection point. Failing to act will mean that the many vacancies out there will remain vacancies for the foreseeable future, with a lack of candidates able to perform the roles effectively. Our economic recovery is at stake and the time to act is now.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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