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Upskilling could be the key to a more diverse workforce

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by Startacus Admin


Sarah Gilchriest, President of Circus Street, discusses why businesses should think about addressing the digital skills gap and diversity in parallel.

When we look to the future, much feels uncertain, but one thing we can be sure of is that we will be living in a world where we are all more reliant on technology, be it as individuals or businesses. The problem, though, is at the moment we just don’t have the skills to keep up. Our economy is suffering from a digital skills gap, as the digital transformation changes the way that we do business. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics are now a key part of how firms operate. As these skills become increasingly important for businesses, it is strikingly evident that too few of our workers have the skills required to allow them to keep pace with these changes. At the same time, we are seeing a continued drive to try and improve diversity and inclusion within businesses. Yet the lack of a level playing field is never more starkly obvious than when we look at roles in tech, with women and those from minority backgrounds still significantly underrepresented. Could it be that an opportunity presents itself to us here, for companies to promote diversity and equity through upskilling of their existing workforce, making sure those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds are able to future proof their careers?

john-schnobrich-FlPc9_VocJ4-unsplashWe know that when companies are more diverse, they perform better, have better staff retention, and maintain a better culture.  However, despite all the media attention, discussion and strategising, the tech industry is still a long way from having a truly level playing field. The two main reasons cited for this lack of diversity are: the ‘toxic bro culture’ - which covers a multitude of sins from outright discrimination through to processes and systems that disadvantage people from underrepresented groups securing jobs or gaining promotions; and the funnel problem - there aren’t enough people from diverse backgrounds studying relevant subjects to be able to pursue a career in tech. For example, according to the latest UK Government statistics just 19% of computer science graduates are women and only 6.2% of STEM students are black. 

Startups have made some progress in tackling cultural problems, however, when it comes to lack of qualified individuals, most founders lament the problem but feel they are powerless to find a solution. It is, they would argue, a systemic, societal issue that is up to governments to change. The reality is that there is a lot startups can do to tackle both the skills gap and D&I problems. A huge part of the solution can be an effective upskilling strategy.   

People can be guilty of thinking of upskilling as simply learning a new trade. It’s not just that - it’s about giving people the tools, insights and mentality they need to develop a huge range of skills applicable to different circumstances. It’s a continuous and nuanced process. We aren’t, for example, talking about training an army of fully-fledged data scientists, We’re saying that there is value in giving everybody basic data skills so they can apply this knowledge to their own professional circumstances. These individuals may go on to learn coding, marketing or IT skills that combine to make them a highly skilled worker in their field. 

Practically speaking, every worker requires regular training to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change. So why draw an arbitrary line on the skills you require at the hiring process? Growing your own talent in a targeted way is much more efficient. Startups can continuously upskill existing team members with knowledge that is directly relevant to your business and they can then apply these learnings immediately. Training can be tailored to the aspirations and innate abilities of each individual. As an added bonus, training and development programs have been shown to vastly increase worker satisfaction and improve retention. 

Training schemes also have a tendency to smash down preconceived notions organisations have about their team. It can also highlight how some workers have been pigeonholed into certain roles simply because of what managers think they want or because they feel they are unable to ask for more opportunities. This can go a long way to tackling the unconscious bias that is so harmful to diversity goals.

It is important though, when putting in place an upskilling programme, to make sure you’re optimising the opportunity that it can offer to every individual, if you want to ensure that it encourages diversity and inclusion. That means, for example, employees should be given time in their working day to focus on upskilling, as otherwise it may be more difficult to get involved for caregivers and those who have more commitments on their time at home, often those who come from more underrepresented backgrounds. If not done carefully and considerately, it can in fact make it even harder for them to break through as others progress their skills and careers.

Sarah GilchriestOur workforce needs to represent the society we live in if we want innovation to work for us all, and there is a long way to go before this will have been achieved. It also needs to have the skills that a modern economy requires, and to address the digital skills gap. Whilst upskilling is never going to be the silver bullet that solves the entire D&I problem, there is a huge window of opportunity for businesses that are able to look upon these two issues as interconnected. Through a well planned upskilling program, everyone, regardless of background or initial expertise, can have the chance to build their careers and make sure they do not get left behind. And by investing in the development of diverse employees, businesses will find it easier to retain talent, positioning them to benefit from all the strengths a more inclusive, and more skilled, team brings.


Sarah Gilchriest is President of global leading digital training provider, Circus Street



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Published on: 12th December 2022

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