How tech companies can be leaders in workplace education

Andrew Lawson, senior vice-president EMEA at Zendesk, on supporting the next generation of tech enthusiasts

This year’s A-Level results will be published in an environment that’s different to any other year. Following the global COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a lot that has caused the rule book on skills and learning to be thrown out of the window. But this is a time like never before for young people to adapt and prepare for life in a tech-led, digital future. For employers, it’s time to form part of the education spectrum, and not just be a receiver of fully-fledged job-ready candidates.

Let’s be honest; there’s plenty to be pessimistic about when looking at today’s job market through the eyes of school leavers. As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling exams this year, students across the country are quite rightly feeling nervous as to what that tiny piece of paper is going to say, with little control over the end result.

The education system has been hugely impacted by social-distancing and isolation measures, and with the government announcing that it’s scrapping its commitment to get 50% of England’s young people into university, a lot of questions are being raised about future-proofing the skills our younger generation need for their career, with even less access to work experience schemes than normal.

All of this isn’t happening in a vacuum; while many are looking at how they can continue their learning or go into the job market straightaway, there’s already a job crisis in the UK. Industries across the board have been badly affected, and as a result, unemployment could hit 4 million people if the economy doesn’t recover, according to the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR). In 2019, the jobless figure was 1.9 million.

But this isn’t a call for defeatism – it’s a call for change. And if we want to give the 2020 cohort of young people the leg up they need, we can’t afford for this change to be gradual.

An adjusting workforce

The word that employers are becoming increasingly acquainted with is ‘skills’. The shift to working from home has been a shift towards digital collaboration. For many, that meant learning new approaches to teamwork and management, learning new digital platforms and learning how to be productive without physical proximity to the people they usually share desk space with.

For many, that learning process is ongoing. According to YouGov figures, a fifth of Brits who had never worked from home before the COVID-19 pandemic had started to consistently during the lockdown. But now, 79% of SMEs plan to introduce a work from home policy after the pandemic ends, according to Hitachi Capital. That means the skills journey doesn’t end. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it’s only just beginning.

Technology companies in particular, as those who are already at the forefront of many leading innovations, have a responsibility to ensure all of their workers are up to speed from a skills perspective. They should offer educational programmes for those looking to reskill or even upskill at a time where the worst thing to do would be to pause all training activities. They should build on the knowledge capital already residing in their businesses and prepare their workers with the capabilities they will need for the future. They need to see themselves as educators as much as they see themselves as employers if they’re serious about developing their people as much as they are their bottom line. And that means a continual commitment to training.

Future talent

So, where do school and college leavers feature in all of this? Those entering the workforce now are the ones who will live and work through the measures we implement today. They are tech-savvy, but also have a clear vision of the ways they like to work. Employers need to hear them and equip them to be their best selves.

Despite employment in the digital tech economy increasing 40% between 2017 and 2019, schools are spending less time teaching computing now than in the past. Tech companies stand to benefit from being proactive in reaching out to the next generation of workers and positioning themselves as a place where people can grow, in careers centered around constant innovation, but they also have to be ready to reskill those coming to the business without specific specialist knowledge. These could be people coming from other disciplines that have less relevance in the modern workforce, or indeed, those coming to a work environment for the first time. All have something to offer.

That’s what brings me to the other vital element: diversity. Here, tech companies must be deliberate in their practise. In my opinion, the tech sector does a poor job of marketing itself to the next generation as an industry in need of a diverse pool of candidates. For far too long, many companies have looked around their bubble and recruited in their own image, and are now struggling as a result. Diversity means more than just gender, race and sexual orientation, it’s also about having a workforce that’s a rich tapestry of ideas and experiences. A workforce that’s a melting pot of different types of people, who all bring something different to the table, is what’s needed for future growth.

To get there, businesses have to look more broadly at their talent pipelines, be prepared to recruit younger future stars and develop them in-house. The brightest university graduates are the obvious recruits to seek out, but what about school leavers? What about those switching careers, or those moving around internally from different departments? Everyone should be on a learning journey and businesses should work with staff to facilitate their growth. At Zendesk, our HeadStart London programme is in it’s fifth year. This year, it’s taking place remotely – and is proving how many young people are hungry for roles that allow them to grow and to demonstrate their potential. It’s our job, as the established entity, to help cultivate this young talent. When we all realise this and take the responsibility to invest in the future, there’s a lot that can be achieved.

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