Upskilling to overcome the STEM Gap: an interview with Cambridge Spark
Cambridge Spark is an education technology company that enables organisations to achieve their business goals by educating their workforce in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. Here, Darren Topping speaks with Tom Phillips, Head of Business Development at Cambridge Spark, about the data science and AI skills gap and the importance of upskilling for talent strategy. You can learn more about our talent solutions with Cambridge Spark here.
How do you think the pandemic has changed people’s approach to upskilling?
Tom: The pandemic has helped a lot of organisations realise the urgency of upskilling and the importance of seeing a return on investment from upskilling initiatives. Ultimately, upskilling is about creating the technical capability to deliver on business objectives, and we have seen businesses focus on wanting to understand what measurable ROI their investment in the workforce has had. For data upskilling initiatives, this typically has been seen through reduced costs, for instance time saved through automation or reduced IT fees, but also can be seen through increased revenue. We have seen more organisations embracing virtual learning for more flexibility around business requirements and to create a higher level of accessibility and inclusivity to upskilling programmes. We are seeing more organisations embedding upskilling as an essential work activity for their workforce - thinking of upskilling as a standard part of their ongoing workforce development rather than a separate project and developing a culture of learning at work.
Darren: I think that a lot of people took lockdown as an opportunity to develop new skills and capabilities in line with an alternative career. In our ‘What Tech Candidates Want’ research from early 2020, we were surprised to find that upskilling was an important factor behind contractors’ decision over what role to take. Going forwards, I anticipate that along with a demand for hybrid working as part of individuals changing roles, a defined upskilling, training, and mentoring plan will also be a major demand for talent in the market.
What can businesses do to overcome the skills gap?
Tom: Businesses should look to their existing workforce to understand how upskilling can help overcome the skills gap. There are established routes and methods for upskilling workforces. We see a lot of businesses setting up internal Academies focussed on a particular skills area, for instance Data Science or Cybersecurity, which provide a variety of programmes of different levels that are open to all staff to apply for. For employees in the UK, delivering these Academies as apprenticeships is increasingly popular, with employees gaining a recognised qualification and the business able to fund the Academy using the Apprenticeship Levy.
An important starting point is understanding the skills needed to meet business objectives and making sure that the upskilling programme will deliver these skills. The proposed curriculum must match the identified skills gap and align with business needs. We also see greater success in closing the skills gap where businesses are able to tailor the content of the programme. This can be possible through sector-specific curricula or even tailoring the content directly to the business (one of our clients we are working with learners in more than 50 different business units ranging from manufacturing to HR to commercial finance). For instance, creating tailored assignments or case studies for employees to work on, or delivering hackathons working on a live business problem.
Businesses also need to provide the right level of support to each employee to ensure the programme is successful. This includes technical support that covers the content of the programme and also how to apply the skills to the workplace. It can also include pastoral and career support, for instance for employees who have been out of education for a long-time. Through providing the right level of support and tailoring, organisations can accelerate the time it takes for staff to deploy new skills in the workplace and overcome the skills gap.
Darren: I couldn’t agree more with Tom’s points, and just to add, I think there is a huge opportunity for organisations to start mapping the skills of their workforce today, in order to accelerate internal mobility and upskilling programmes for individuals in roles that are in decline into high-growth roles such as in data and machine learning.
What are the benefits of bringing talent in to upskill your workforce?
Darren: The main benefit of adding external, new, and diverse talent to your workforce is that it also brings new and neurodivergent thinking that accelerates the capability of your whole organisation. Earlier in the year I interviewed Lara Montefiori, the Chief Scientific Advisor for Arctic Shores who gave an excellent summary of why new thinking was essential for business. From across our client base we continually see that organisations are trying to achieve more with less resources, therefore increasingly the overall capability of your workforce is essential to stay ahead.
Tom: Upskilling the workforce is a necessity but not the only way to develop your workforce. Hiring fresh talent can bring new perspectives and new ideas on how to apply technologies. Upskilling and hiring can actually work well together strategically, with technical talent often looking for new opportunities to develop their skills further - an attractive upskilling proposition can help differentiate from competitors and persuade top technical talent to join. For some of our clients, our programmes are offered to new hires as a way for them to gain a government-recognised qualification in data science through their work.
Do you think the workforce will ever catch-up with the digital skills gap?
Tom: Businesses need to continue developing the skills of their workforce to keep up with changes and developments in technology, particularly for specialist areas like data science. Businesses need to make sure that they are considering this ongoing development need when creating their upskilling programmes. Rather than being a one-off project, upskilling programmes might need to form part of their ongoing talent development strategy, with learning and skills development embedded in the workplace.
Social mobility will also be important for bridging the gap. Social mobility increases the talent pool available for businesses and therefore reduces the skills gap. We offer a full-stack curriculum for the data science vertical with an entry point into a data career for anyone of any technical background. For some clients, this has proven to be a way of opening up upskilling initiatives to a wider pool of people, as the prerequisites for courses become less restrictive.
Darren: I think we will eventually close the digital skills gap, but at the moment technology is moving faster than education. To speed this process up, I think action needs to be taken now. This action needs to happen in all facets of our society from schools and colleges to teach relevant technology skills, right the way through to organisations developing, promoting and being patient with internal upskilling and mobility schemes. Those companies that begin these programmes today will be the ones who benefit most from this approach.
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