Closing the digital skills gap: why has recruitment fallen behind in the digital revolution?

Digital has changed the way the marketing sector operates. Yet the speed at which it has impacted on the business has left recruiters struggling to keep up. As companies demand more and more specific digital experience and the skills gap widens, Angela Haggerty takes a look at why the digital jobs market is lagging behind and what jobseekers can do to improve their offering.

Skills gap: Recruiters and jobseekers have both struggle in digital

It’s the country’s fastest growing industry and the government is pinning economic hopes on it; it’s diverse and stretches across sectors, from private to public and from old to new – so why is recruitment struggling to keep up with the digital revolution?

Figures released last month by The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) showed permanent work placements in marketing have dropped by 21 per cent year-on-year despite an increase in job openings of two per cent. Businesses said they were forced to turn to temporary workers to fill the gap and described a “mismanagement of expectations” within companies developing digital marketing skills.

The data was one of a number of studies pointing towards the same problem and the UK’s workers are as aware of the widening skills gap as their employers. According to research carried out by OnePoll in June, almost half of the people surveyed said they wanted to add new digital skills and knowledge to their CVs. Cost and uncertainty over how to learn were given as obstacles to development.

Meanwhile, blame has been heaped on government by some, with a recent report from GfK, commissioned by TechCityInsider in partnership with Grant Thornton, City University of London, Digital Shoreditch and Vitamin T, accusing the government of failing to adequately support the industry and risking stunted growth in the rapidly growing sector.

Digital technology has enabled the marketing industries to branch out of their traditional disciplines and expand the range of services they can provide, but with that capability comes a need for multi-skilled tech-savvy staff. As the fabric of industry changes with moving technologies, jobseekers are increasingly unsure of the skills required to keep up.

“In a recent survey that we carried out to our community we asked what skills graduates were expected to have when they enter their first marketing role,” says Sheree Hellier, head of insight and programme development at the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM). “We discovered that overall, graduates are expected to have a range of skills even though they may not be hugely experienced. Numeracy and awareness of the wider marketing landscape were identified as the most important skills newly qualified graduates should have.

“A current highly sought-after skill is coding, which is in particular demand within innovative start-ups in Silicon Roundabout,” she continues.

“There also appears to be importance for newly qualified graduates seeking employment in the marketing industry to have knowledge of a range of tools, most notable SEO, Google Adwords and PPC, according to our recent survey.

“Graduate roles do not appear to be clearly defined – they are expected to have a range of skills and be a ‘jack of all trades’ early on in their careers. Often there is a skills expectations versus an experience disconnect.”

Director of Manchester-based recruitment agency Instinct, Mike Ward, echoes Hellier’s view, saying employers’ approaches to the job market have evolved in recent years.

“Despite the encouraging signs, business are watching their spend as closely as ever, specifically their recruitment budgets”, he explains. “Tighter budgets equal tighter process, so as ironic as this may sound it’s had a really positive effect on the way employers are engaging with the jobseeker market, turning to experienced, specialist and trustworthy recruiters. It’s also had a significant impact on applicants. With businesses taking fewer risks, candidates have really had to up their game to stand out from the crowd and secure themselves the position.”

For the UK to keep up in the tech race and stimulate further growth, the industry is calling for a fundamental change in the approach to recruitment. It’s not just about picking up a few skills on top of an established discipline – tech skills such as coding should become a basic skill taught in schools, according to many. Tech giant Google was one of the first to back a recent ‘Code Club’ initiative in the UK to teach youngsters the relevant skills.

However, co-founder of Digital Gurus, Farooq Mohammed, says the next generation of digital natives will acquire those skills more naturally; it’s developing the current workforce – and quickly – that is pertinent.

“We are at the beginning of a technical revolution – knowing what HTML/CSS/Javascript are and how they function will become fundamental,” he explains. “It’s a global language and these tools are the alphabet – people working in the marketing industries will increasingly need to know how this language that will run through all their online marketing functions and works.

“If I was going into the job market today, I would make sure I understood code; it is the only universal human language and one that will mark you out as different in the current jobs market. The last two or three years have seen a big shift towards technology as mobile and tablets have taken off,” he adds.

The creative industry currently provides around 1.5 million jobs and employment in the sector has grown at double the rate of the economy as a whole. Digital convergence across the creative marketing disciplines has put tech skills in demand and while creatives and marketers may not traditionally have associated their roles with tech, a change of mindset is required to succeed in the industry today. UK internet traffic is predicted to rise by an average of 37 per cent every year between 2010 and 2015 (according to a 2012 report by A.T. Kearney).

Digital is key. So how can professionals – young and old – develop the relevant skills? According to Justin Moore of London and Manchester-based recruitment agency Become, there are plenty of resources out there, including training companies, online tutorials and courses.

“I would recommend going online and investigating which courses have the best feedback and success rates,” says Moore. “See which courses are being talked about and ask questions to people online who have experience in the areas you’re passionate about.

“Always choose a course that’s specifically appropriate to what it is you’re looking to get into. Make it relevant to your desired skills set and also the level you need. Make sure the qualifications you achieve after these courses are recognised and respected by the organisations and industries you’re looking to join.

“Another avenue for research is to join digital networking events and mingle with digital experts and ask their advice – they will be able to guide you in the right direction,” adds Moore.

The marketing industry is in broad agreement on the central role technology now plays in every aspect of the job and the uncertainty that it inevitably creates. Workers in the industry can’t afford to become complacent or settled within their skillsets. To stay relevant, thorough awareness of digital developments and fresh approaches to utilising them are the qualities setting candidates apart during a refreshing period for recruitment

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