The Surprise Appearance of the IT Skills Gap at SXSW
The IT skills gap has been a topic of concern in the industry for some time now. And let's be clear: The reason for the gap is not a shortage of people, per se. Rather, it's a shortage of people with the right skills to fill the open jobs that need filling.
Alas, IT is a field in which "any warm body" falls far short of meeting the requirements for high-tech jobs that demand the job holder possess specific bodies of technical knowledge and the skills to go with them. As many IT or HR managers have said about the skills gap of late:
"It's not that I can find people. There are plenty of people out there. It's that I can't find the right people, with the right skills to fill the jobs that I have open."
A New Spin on an Old Idea
A panel discussion at tres hip film-and-music festival South by Southwest (better known as the acronymic SXSW) attempted to address this mismatch by suggesting a variety of strategies to help prospective job candidates acquire and develop the right skills to help them not just fill, but excel at those open jobs currently begging to be occupied.
The title of the session, "Apprenticeships and Solving the IT Skills Gap," dredges up a venerable European concept related to the so-called trades of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: craftspeople used to have to begin in a trade as an apprentice, before becoming a journeyman, and then eventually a master of their profession.
Modern workers certainly wouldn't surrender their autonomy and all their time and energy for seven years or longer — the duration of a typical medieval apprenticeship — in exchange for room, board, and learning a trade. That was the deal back then, believe it or not.
There is still something to be said, however, for an educational system that puts beginners under the oversight and control of an acknowledged master to guide their efforts: Someone who can ensure they learn the basics and acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to start establishing some mastery of their own.
The panel covered various approaches to education that differ from a traditional classroom situation with lectures to present concepts, and labs or hands-on exercises in which to put such learning to work.
The apprenticeship model means providing some basic introductory classroom training to kick things off. But it quickly puts apprentices into the workplace where they can see how the real professionals do things, and learn by watching what others do and how they do it.
And of course, apprentices also learn by doing whatever they can do to help their co-workers move workaday processes along to completion. This kind of "training in the round" also explains why internships are increasingly popular (and relevant) for future employment.
They, too, involve workplace experience and exposure that tells employers that candidates have some idea about what they're getting themselves into, and are better informed about what will be expected of them and how to function properly and effectively in the workplace.
Not Just Tech Know-How
Developing soft skills also turns out to be incredibly important to workplace success. Hands-on, immersive programs like apprenticeships and internships show the people who fill those roles what real professionals do in the workplace, besides writing code or making marketing plans.
Too many young people, including college graduates, hit the workplace devoid of basic skills in communication (oral and written), team participation and coworking, organization and time-management, and other important skills that often don't show up in STEM curricula.
That's why many such hands-on programs often teach soft skills to attendees like those already mentioned, as well as job search, resume writing, self-presentation, and interviewing skills. Learning to get a job is a job in itself, and one worth understanding well before tackling.
Job-Ready from the Start
Ultimately, the best way to fill the skills gap, as the panelists themselves observed, is to make sure candidates are ready to bring those skills with them to the interview that ultimately gets them a job, and then to the workplace where they will ultimately do the job.
Hopefully, this will begin to be addressed in secondary and post-secondary education as well. CompTIA and other cert sponsors work closely with high schools, community colleges, and graduate and undergraduate universities to make this happen.
But it must also be addressed in other forms of job preparation and training programs like those for interns and apprentices. Even retraining programs for workers displaced from various jobs or industries — who are seeking to find meaningful and gainful employment for the remainder of their working lives — should address this need.
There's much more to say about all of these topics, but it's great to see smart people get the ball rolling in a venue where young workers may actually take notice.