What can tech businesses do to address the STEM skills shortage?
We are living through a period of unprecedented change. Rapidly evolving technology has transformed how we live and work, creating expectations for the future that would have seemed the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago. It’s easy to get caught up in the vast possibilities that technology offers, but we must remember that people are the ones driving innovation in this exciting new world and they are central to its success. To fully realise the potential of the technology at our fingertips, it’s vital that we invest in our people resources and address the skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that threatens to slow the pace of progress.
A recent STEM skills indicator showed that businesses at the cutting edge of the industrial economy, from healthcare to Artificial Intelligence and robotics, are feeling the effects of a lack of STEM skills in the UK workforce. Additional costs of £1.5bn were associated with difficulties in recruiting staff with the right skill level; 7 in 10 businesses had struggled to fill key positions.
While the UK government has rightly identified increasing the UK population’s STEM skills as a priority and a pillar of its industrial strategy, this transformation can’t happen overnight – and in the interim we face a skills crunch. As a scale-up business in the technology industry, at Egress we have first-hand experience of working hard to attract, recruit and retain the skilled employees vital to our fast-paced growth. It’s clear from this experience that the technology community urgently needs to step-up to tackle the lack of STEM skills head-on and get smarter about building our own pipeline of talent. This way we can strengthen our own workforce continuity, while also offering exciting opportunities to a wider range of people.
Early exposure is essential
Young people start making career choices at a very early stage, so encouraging them to consider STEM-related roles must reflect that. We need to start competing for talent in the classroom.
Research shows that girls in particular begin to lose interest in STEM-related careers in their mid-teens, with 58% of them dismissing the idea of a STEM career by the time they reach university. As an industry, we need to work with schools and youth organisations to promote the benefits, opportunities and satisfaction that careers in technology offer entrants from all backgrounds.
Doing this successfully means looking at what motivates young people. Today’s career entrants are prioritising quality of life over the accumulation of physical assets like cars and houses; they’re looking for “purpose, not paychecks”. However, the tech sector is strongly positioned to provide both. Technology is the biggest force for change on the planet right now, capable of solving some of humanity’s most pressing problems. Opportunities to make a positive difference to the world abound and this should appeal to young people seeking meaningful careers.
The tech industry is also growing exponentially at a time when many traditional industries are facing disruption. It therefore provides greater job security for those who have the skills to be part of it.
These should be compelling messages for young people who are considering their education and career options. We need to build awareness and keep providing touchpoints with the industry, so that when students come to make choices, we are firmly on the shortlist.
The power of undergraduate placement programmes
There’s been a common complaint from businesses in recent years that graduates lack basic workplace skills, such as time and workload management. The obvious remedy for this is experience in the workplace and this is something we strongly support at Egress.
Increasingly, universities are recognising that employability skills are at least as important as academic achievements and they’re becoming more proactive about engaging with businesses to secure work placement for undergraduates. As a tech company, it’s our responsibility to reach out as well and provide meaningful placements, which give undergraduates realistic insight into how businesses operate in the commercial environment. Even if ultimately, a student decides against a career in technology, experience in the workplace is transferable and will increase their value for future employers.
Undergraduate placement programmes are also hugely valuable for the companies that offer them; they’re where you start to identify your future talent. It has worked well for Egress, with several of our current staff joining after spending a year with us during their undergraduate studies – with even more on their way following graduations in 2019/20! Having got to know these individuals during their placement year, we can be confident that they have the right cultural fit, the skills potential we need, and are ready to grow alongside the business.
Building loyalty through training and development
Once we’ve recruited into STEM roles, we have to create the right environment to retain staff and create loyalty. Evidence suggests that high-level STEM employees are less likely than counterparts in other roles to receive ongoing training, which is an imbalance that tech companies must be at the forefront of correcting.
Today’s career entrants place heavy emphasis on personal development, so continuous learning opportunities and career progression are vital. It’s important that as start-ups mature into scale-up businesses, there is a formalisation of training and development strategies that will attract and retain employees.
Workplace training has changed a lot in the past 20 years – and for the better. Previously you might have spent five days in a classroom and received a certificate at the end, but today, training is much more hands-on and real-world focussed. At Egress, our Academy Programme offers personalised training to employees at all levels of the business, from apprentices and undergraduates, right up through management and at executive level. We typically run six-month programmes with multiple short sessions plus mentoring – a high-touch approach that’s very effective in developing both the technical and softer management skills that we need in our workforce.
Offering non-financial advantages to employees is also an important strategy for scale-up businesses trying to appeal to today’s career entrants. This includes personalised development programmes but also extends to the less tangible ‘experience’ that an energetic and flexible work environment can offer.
By focusing on promoting the tech sector to future employees, providing opportunities for undergraduates and developing our own STEM talent within the business, tech companies can put themselves in a much stronger position to navigate the skills shortage, as longer-term educational initiatives also take effect.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.