George Osborne’s “we are the builders” got another outing in the recent Autumn Statement. But it’s not at all clear who will be doing that building. Both the engineering and construction sectors are facing a severe skills shortage, as is IT and computing.

The skills shortage is considered so serious that earlier this year, the Chartered Accountants of Scotland and DLA Piper found that Britain's finance chiefs are far more concerned about the lack of accessible talent than almost any other growth impact factor. Only depressed oil prices ranked higher. Possible Brexit, increased borrowing costs, and China’s slowdown all sat lower on their list of worries.

Part of the problem, certainly in the IT sector or those that are heavily dependent on IT, is that many of the skills that are wanted have barely been around long enough to be formally described. The pace of change means that forward skills planning is extremely tricky. From our own experience, emerging technologies (such as Puppet) are particularly challenging, as are roles where dual skills are needed such as development and support, or DevOps.

The consequences have been entirely predictable. At a national level, productivity – output per unit of labour and a key indicator of economic health – lags behind countries like Germany, France and the US. Meanwhile, starting salaries for those with in-demand skills continue to rise. But it’s unclear how much longer this trend can continue.

There are plenty of admirable schemes to try and redress the balance. BT has expanded its Barefoot Computing programme to teach IT skills to 400,000 children across the UK by 2016, for example. Extra-curricular programs like Coder Dojo and Code Club are encouraging young people to get involved in computer science.

The government has also invested £500,000 to develop cyber security skills in UK universities. So-called digital transformation companies like Freeformers and Makers Academy are filling important gaps, and the Tech Partnership is a growing network of employers, collaborating to create the skills for the digital economy.

But what can companies, for whom productivity is not an abstract national concept but a very real barrier to growth and competitiveness, do to get the right skills in to their organisation. Our tips include:

  1. Look internally. What skills have you already got in your organisation? People’s job descriptions don’t necessarily reflect what they are capable of. Assessing the talent and potential of your existing people may reveal skills and competencies that you could make much better use of.
  2. Clarify the job specification. If you have to go outside, do you know what you’re really looking for and why? Does the job specification reflect that? Recruitment can become an energy-sapping saga if your job specification is too general. Equally it can grind to a halt if it is too specific.
  3. Choose partners carefully. Make sure your recruitment agency has a deep bench of specialists in the field you are looking for – both among their own staff and their candidate lists. They will be able to find your next employee much quicker than a generalist, even with a smaller candidate pool.
  4. Commit to recruitment. Candidates with in-demand skills get snapped up quickly. So make sure your internal recruitment function has the authority and the ability to negotiate and finalise an offer as quickly as possible, and then mobilise the on-boarding process.
  5. Keep hold of your talent. Once you’ve got the skills in-house then hold on to them. Get creative with remuneration packages and incentives, and keep career paths open and flexible.
  6. Develop a skills SWAT team. If career paths in your organisation are centred on business function rather than skills, it may be time to shake things up. Highly sought-after employees with, for example, analytics skills can be rapidly deployed in one business function before being moved on to the next.
  7. Invest in training. Formal education can only do so much to get the right skills into the workforce. 14 year-olds are asked to make decisions about their career years before they get to the workplace. A lot can change in that time. Given the pace of change, the syllabus of a three-year degree in computer science could be out of date by the time students graduate. Explore ways that you can supplement learned skills with job-specific training.
  8. Get involved. As a minimum, participate in surveys such as the bi-annual Employer Skills Survey from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Add your voice to industry bodies. Engage with local education and training institutions. The skills gap is a worldwide phenomenon. Collaboration is needed to solve it.

By David Bloxham, Managing Director, GCS Recruitment