A lack of talent is often cited as one of the drags on the United Kingdom’s tech startup sector. That’s a problem for companies seeking to hire suitably qualified staff but it is perhaps also an opportunity to look at new ways to open up the talent pipeline and recruit a more diverse range of people.
Earlier this year, recruitment business Hays published a report suggesting that as many as 96% of Britain’s IT employers were suffering from skills shortages. It’s an issue that affects not only tech startups, of course. Companies of all sizes are struggling to find the people they need. So what can be done?
One long-term answer is to encourage more students to take science, math and engineering subjects but that’s not necessarily a panacea. In fact, the U.K. is actually doing fairly well on that front. When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak addressed London Tech Week Earlier this month, he pointed out that Britain’s universities turn out a higher percentage of STEM-qualified graduates than their U.S. counterparts. And yet there are still skills shortages. What’s more, there are only so many suitably qualified graduates that universities can conceivably produce. So maybe we shouldn’t expect the education system alone to solve the problem.
So could more immigration be the answer? Well, yes, to some extent. While the flow of European talent has slowed following Britain’s departure from the E.U., the government has had some success in attracting highly qualified people to work in the tech industry through its “talent visa” scheme, an initiative open to employees and potential founders.
There’s a caveat. Figures published by law firm Kingsley Napley in association with Global Tech Connect found that for entrepreneurs, the U.K. was seen as an attractive destination for 95% of global entrepreneurs but openness was an issue.
“We hear time and again that reform to our visa system would be helpful to support tech entrepreneurs and those polled indicated that simplifying the current complex system would be top of their wish list. This is something the Government should consider to help London, in particular, maintain its position as a global tech hub,” said Lida de Sousa, a partner in the firm’s immigration team.
A third solution is to cast the recruitment net more widely. That’s the approach taken by recruitment startup Academy. Founded by Ashley Ramrachia in 2020, the company has developed an approach to training tech staff who would normally struggle to find a way into the industry. When I spoke to him, I was keen to find out how non-traditional pipelines can help ease the talent shortage.
Prior to establishing Academy, Ramrachia was Global Talent Director at The Hut Group (THG) , an online seller of beauty projects. In that role, he experienced first-hand the difficulties of hiring people with the necessary skills. In response, the unicorn company developed its own training academy. In founding Academy, Ramrachia has built on the approach to recruitment and training developed at that time. Academy has just raised $4 million in a seed round led by Localglobe.
Screening People In
So what problem is academy addressing? Put simply it is the tendency of employers (and recruitment firms) to apply rigid criteria to the tech hiring process.
“Traditional hiring is about screening people out,” he says. “You set criteria – such as a STEM qualification or so many years’ experience – and as a result you find yourself fishing in a very shallow pool.”
Ramrachia says his approach is to “screen people in.” So, what does that mean in practice?
Well, it’s about looking for the qualities that underpin the ability to write code, or as Ramrachia puts it, the cognitive abilities that are predictive of the ability to learn skills.” These include emotional intelligence, logical thinking, problem-solving and drive, he adds.
To find trainees, Academy advertises and uses recruitment agencies in the normal way. The candidates are then put through a filtering process of around 60 hours to identify those with the necessary qualities. Those that succeed are then trained to a basic entry-level of IT skills before being onboarded by employers. Those skills are then “accelerated” by further on-the-job training.” Overall, it’s a six-month program.
At first glance, a 60-hour screening process might seem daunting. “The carrot is that this is an opportunity for people to change their lives,” says Ramrachia. And citing a recent program with grocery delivery company Ocado, he says there is real enthusiasm. “With Ocado, we had more than 500 applicants.
So who are the candidates? Well, they are very often graduates although not from the usual pool. That might mean a history graduate who has (clearly) a high level of education but who normally wouldn’t be considered for a tech job.. In terms of diversity, the company scores high on training women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds. Those onboarded can be trained across a wide range of software disciplines, according to clieent need.
Given the length of the training programs, it’s perhaps not surprising that Academy is partnering with established corporate names such as Ocado In that respect, although a startup it isn’t necessarily directly feeding talent into the startup ecosystem but it is increasing the pool of talent. And perhaps the larger principle here is that some startups and certainly scaleups may may be able to take steps to recruit from non-traditional sources. For instance, as previously Ramrachia’s previous company – The HUT Group – set up its own academy.
But let’s return to the bigger picture. To some extent, the talent shortage problem may be easing somewhat. Andrew Roughan is managing director of innovation center operator Plexal. He sees a shift in the market. “Six months ago I would have said that finding people was a big problem,” he said. “What we’ve seen since is big-tech companies laying people off. Now we’re seeing 100s of people applying for every job.”
But he acknowledges that will change and he says more needs to be done to create a path between academic qualifications and high-value jobs. “And we are not doing enough on in-career skilling,” he says.
So assuming recent layoffs in the sector are a temporary response to economic conditions, skills will remain an issue for tech startups, scaleups and large businesses. In addition to relying on more people taking STEM subjects and immigration, the solutions will surely include new approaches to recruitment and training.
Read the full article here