Hire people with “unconventional backgrounds” to fill the tech skills gap

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Much has been made of the shortage of tech professionals and the stress organizations feel trying to find them. A new McKinsey paper makes the case for hiring people from ‘less conventional backgrounds’.

The report acknowledges that this is “difficult to put into practice”, noting that “hiring managers are reluctant to choose people with learning curves to fill critical roles”.

Yet the study finds that “people are able to master distinctly new skills, and unconventional tech hires aren’t so unconventional after all. But, the willingness to hire them and the commitment to help them develop their capabilities requires a change in mindset.

It’s a tactic businesses should embrace, McKinsey said. Demand is growing exponentially for skills such as software engineering, data management, platform design, analytics-based automation, customer experience design, and cybersecurity. Eighty-seven percent of senior executives surveyed globally said their companies were unprepared to close the digital skills gap before the COVID-19 pandemic caused dramatic changes to the remote work.

The pressure is particularly strong for employers outside of the tech sector, the research firm noted.

Of course, some people aren’t well-suited for technical roles, and these are people who tend to be happy in their comfort zone, said Anu Madgavkar, a McKinsey Global Institute partner and one of the report’s authors.

But she added that “even seasoned tech professionals with computer science degrees must engage in continuous learning to keep pace with changes in the field.”

People are learning tech skills to reinvent themselves

The report’s authors said they analyzed millions of online job postings to quantify the “skill distance” associated with specific job changes, referring to the share of new or non-overlapping skills associated with the new job. job when someone makes a change.

According to the report, people new to tech typically overcome a 27% skill gap each time they switch roles.

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“More intriguing for hiring managers is the subset of tech professionals who started out in other types of professions,” the authors said. “These aren’t the experts who got computer science degrees and never deviated from their chosen path.

“These are people who started out in entirely different areas of work, then reinvented themselves, adding new capabilities along the way, perhaps learning to code, understanding web architecture, or developing apps. “

The authors called this a “common phenomenon in technology” and said that 44% of people who held tech roles at the end of the time period they observed left non-IT professions.

“To do that, they’ve had to master a greater share of distinctly new skills, and their reward for that is upward mobility.”

Additionally, for technical roles in particular, “it’s also worth considering whether it’s really necessary to insist on a college degree,” Madgavkar said. The study found that many workers who transitioned to technology from other occupations did so without a college degree.

Tech roles dramatically increase people’s earnings

People who move into a technology role increase their lifetime earnings. In fact, nearly two-thirds of their lifetime earnings can be attributed to what the authors called “experience capital or skills acquired on the job”.

According to the report, these workers covered an average skill distance of 53%, significantly higher than when people who started in the field moved on.

“This indicates that workers willing to step out of their comfort zone are often able to develop and apply more new technical skills than many hiring managers assume,” the report said. “During the period we observed, these newcomers increased their salaries by an average of 5.3% per year, which is higher than the growth of 2.3 to 2.6% for those who started in technology.”

Technological roles in which unconventional workers evolve

Some common technical roles that offer newcomers a starting point include application software developers, IT support specialists, web developers, administrators and document management specialists, according to the report.

“From these launch pads, the sky is often the limit for technology, where things move so quickly that the field is wide open for anyone to follow, regardless of pedigree,” the report says.

Additionally, nearly three in five workers who ended up as IT managers in the United States started in non-IT roles. They typically started their careers as operations and marketing managers or management analysts.

Three key strategies for cultivating tech talent

Non-digital-native companies routinely find themselves outbid for tech talent or bypassed by highly experienced candidates, according to the report. This indicates that they need to take a different approach to recruiting and retaining talent, one that no longer focuses on narrow specialization and takes a broader view of people’s potential.

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Don’t overlook the people within your own organization who could make a change

Compared to those already in tech roles, workers with non-technical backgrounds are almost 30% more likely to leave their current employers to become systems software developers. Take stock of the capabilities already available internally before seeking external candidates. Creating internal mobility that allows employees to learn new skills and change course can keep them energized and stem attrition.

The report cites a June 2021 Gallup survey of 15,000 American workers which found that 61% said the opportunity to learn new skills is an extremely or very important factor in deciding whether to keep their current job.

Have the confidence to make bolder hiring decisions

Although data from McKinsey shows that tech talent can come from a wide range of backgrounds, some employers remain conservative when it comes to hiring. People entering technical roles for the first time typically broaden their skills by more than 50%, so employers need a “fresh look” to screen candidates based on their potential as well as their background. .

Candidates should be assessed not only on their current responsibilities, but also on their transferable skills, intrinsic abilities, and potential for success in new roles. Hard skills can usually be taught, so organizations should research the type of mindset and relevant soft skills required for the role.

Train to retain

As tech workers move around, employers need to value everything they offer employees, and one of the most important elements is the opportunity to learn.

“Deepening and expanding the digital skills of the entire workforce pays off in the form of productivity, innovation and retention,” the report says.

Learning can take the form of in-person structured courses or digital content modules that employees can access on their own. But according to McKinsey, nothing compares to learning-by-doing and coaching or mentoring.

“The evolving nature of technology means that even top experts are constantly learning and improvising on the job,” the authors wrote. “Opening the field to all employees, especially those who want to reinvent themselves, is a smart tactic to activate talent and stay on the cutting edge.


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