At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, people were plunged into uncertainty – firms weren’t sure if they could financially survive lockdown, and people didn’t know what that meant for their jobs.
Life is now beginning to return to normal for some as offices and public spaces reopen, but the uncertainty remains.
On 31 October 2020, the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme will end, meaning firms will either have to allow furloughed employees back full or part time or they’ll have to let them go.
And with students collecting their results across the summer, in many cases decided on predictive grading, a new dimension has been added to the anxiety felt when collecting grades and deciding their future careers.
“The pandemic has triggered uncertainty and a severe recession has added risk and stalled growth, so organisations are naturally cautious about hiring at the moment,” said Alan Warr, chair of the BCS Consultancy Specialist Group. “CIOs will struggle to get hiring approved while other staff are furloughed and business-side jobs and business units are at risk.”
How has the outbreak affected tech hiring?
The uncertainty and recession brought about by the outbreak has meant many companies are being more frugal with their budgets, with some having to reduce employee numbers or stop looking for new hires, and research by UK job board CV-Library found that 64.7% of IT professionals are worried about losing their job during the coronavirus pandemic.
CV-Library also found that a significant number of IT professionals believe the company they work for will suffer as a result of the pandemic, and many of those furloughed are concerned there won’t be a job for them once the furlough scheme is over.
Through discussions with IT workers, Warr has found that “core” IT professionals in organisations have seen increased workloads while trying to cope with huge numbers of home workers, but this “increased demand for IT capacity seems to not be translating into hiring”.
While the number of jobs adverts have dropped, with research by CV-Library finding a 43.9% year-on-year (YoY) drop in advertised tech roles on its site in July 2020, Warr believes there are certain roles firms are still looking for, such as in cloud, data science and artificial intelligence (AI), but are struggling to fill due to pre-existing talent gaps.
“Demand for IT talent has been affected but opportunities remain,” Warr added. “The pandemic and associated recession have affected IT hiring massively for sure, but the picture is very mixed and IT professionals are faring better than most overall.”
New hires, job searchers and contractors
Depending on the roles people are searching for, the picture looks bleak for those in the process of looking for jobs in the technology sector.
Research at the beginning of the outbreak, performed by technology career board CWJobs, found that around half of the people in the UK had their job searches affected by the pandemic and were not confident they would find a position.
Some people have had interviews put on hold or cancelled, with 37% saying they were asked for an interview which then could not happen, and 15% having been offered a job which was put on hold or withdrawn because of the pandemic.
Dominic Harvey, director at CWJobs, said: “It’s certainly hit people within the pipeline badly. But I think in the first two weeks [of lockdown], it came to a shuddering halt, and then typically for the tech community within businesses, they’ve looked at what they can be getting on with in the meantime.”
CWJobs found that some people have stopped searching for roles altogether, but Harvey believes IT departments will go back to projects they’ve had to shelve as things start to look normal again.
Claiming the outbreak has shone a light on the IT department’s importance, Harvey said: “[Tech is] the solution to getting out of this as soon as possible, so there will be a lot of money thrown at it.”
But while budgets are still tight, IT contractors may be negatively affected as firms do what they can to rein in spending and play it safe.
Warr from the BCS said that the current low levels of hiring new IT staff and contractors would have previously been “unthinkable”, but that IT departments are not necessarily letting go of “valued contractors”.
“IT contractors are essential to the mix of IT talent that an effective IT department needs and for the flexible delivery of services by IT firms,” said Warr. “IT leaders need core talent on the payroll, contractor talent to deliver short-term needs and consultancy supplied talent for specialist competences. This is unlikely to change.”
The struggle for startups
Any uncertainty faced by larger firms during Covid-19 has been exacerbated for smaller firms which are often operating on a smaller budget with fewer people.
Research by Sage found that around 62% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK are planning to, or have made, redundancies as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Asaf Navot, CEO of online renting platform Home Made, said that smaller companies which have stopped or cut back on recruitment will be doing so for three reasons – industry operations have been affected by the virus, such as travel and hospitality; the current venture capital environment means there is less opportunity for cash; and uncertainty is forcing smaller businesses to be cautious.
Data visualisation firm Flourish found in April that around 81% of technology startups have stopped or slowed down their hiring. Robin Beattie, managing director of tech recruitment firm Spinks, said startups will have reduced hiring so they can “assess the impact of the pandemic on their business” and think about how much cash they have left or may have access to in the near future.
However, if a startup can take on new talent in the current climate, Navot said now might be a good time.
Beattie added: “If you are in the position to be able to hire, many tech startups will be focused on stocking up on low-supply, high-skill talent for competitive rates and looking to fill senior roles.
“People are more likely to take risks, jump industries, or take a change on a smaller growth business in this environment.”
Students are suffering
Where hiring in the industry is still taking place, it appears to be aimed at finding skilled workers for in-demand roles, possibly to fill a gap highlighted by the pandemic such as in cyber security, IT helpdesk or infrastructure, according to Harvey from CWJobs.
This could leave little wiggle room for graduates or apprentices who are just starting their careers and many not have the appropriate skill level for the scarce roles still available.
Many students at different levels receiving their results this summer may not only be worried that their results don’t properly represent their ability, but could also be faced with a harsh hiring climate.
Computer science graduates are already among those with the highest unemployment after leaving university, and employers have consistently complained that young people aren’t equipped with the workplace skills they need.
BCS’s Warr said that university graduates are currently finding it difficult to find roles both in and outside of the technology sector. Part of the problem experts are predicting is that advertised roles will demand skills that are now even harder for young people to obtain, with Harvey saying soft skills may become increasingly important as more businesses embrace working from home.
Those leaving education, however, may not be as easily trusted to work remotely straight away, as workplace skills are often something people build over time through experience.
A drop in advertised job numbers also means more competition for what roles are on offer – CV-Library found in April 2020 there was an average of 22.57 applications for each tech role advertised, an increase from 9.62 in April 2019 – meaning these roles will likely go to more skilled candidates rather than new entrants to the market.
Home Made’s Navot said this climate might lead to graduates taking “risks” with their careers if “traditional paths to employment are blocked”, making them ripe for the picking for any startups who can afford to hire at this time.
What does the future look like?
It’s clear that even when we can return to work, things won’t be the same as we left them – health and safety firm Protecting.co.uk has said 60% of London staff may not be able to return to work because of the need for social distancing in offices, for example, which might not be possible in some cases.
Social media giant Twitter went in the opposite direction and told its employees they can work from home forever if that’s what they prefer, and Spinks’s Beattie believes firms are warming to the idea of increased home working.
“Many clients felt pre-lockdown that they needed their tech teams onsite with them,” said Beattie. “The pandemic and subsequent lockdown has – on the whole – shown that isn’t the case. Businesses have worked just as efficiently with their engineering teams working remotely.”
He added that recruitment processes might also change as people get used to remote digital interviewing and on-boarding.
CWJobs found that almost 60% of people said they would feel confident taking part in a video job interview and think the outcome would be the same as a face-to-face interview.
This emphasis on home working might even lead to an increase in diverse talent coming into organisations in the future, said George Brasher, HP Inc’s UK and Ireland managing director, adding that a 2019 HP Inc survey of women in UK technology showed that work-life balance, flexible working and family all factor heavily into their career decisions.
“These insights only further the belief that more flexible working options would aid the technology industry in its mission to improve gender diversity numbers by attracting more women,” said Brasher.
Debbie Forster, Tech Talent Charter
As well as a lack of gender diversity, at the moment there is also a lack of geographical diversity in the technology sector, with an overwhelming emphasis on the industry’s “London bubble” – almost 40% of technology talent resides in the London area.
But with more remote working, this might start to change, with talent.io discovering earlier this year that as lockdown was in full swing , London saw a 57% drop in new technology jobs listings created by companies.
“Remote working practices might allow businesses to more easily consider talent from different geographical locations, rather than a traditional catchment area based roughly around an office’s location, in turn helping issues like the north-south divide,” said Brasher.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a turbulent time, and tech companies both large and small have decided to proceed with caution.
But individuals have also reacted to this uncertainty in positive ways – TechUK found that 58% of people want to work on developing their digital skills, which the industry body’s associate director of policy, Vinous Ali, believes companies can use to their advantage.
“Digital transformations that previously took years in the making happened over the course of a few weeks. TechUK’s own polling showed that 71% of business leaders thought business would become more dependent on technology in the future as a result of Covid-19, driving demand for talent,” she said.
“Similarly, our polling showed 58% of the general public were interested in gaining more digital skills in the next 12 months. This is a huge opportunity for employers to look at their current workforce to see how they can upskill and retrain them to meet future needs.”
While there is no doubt that the technology sector has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, Debbie Forster, CEO of Tech Talent Charter, believes it will adapt and learn.
“The opportunities are exciting – companies that were reluctant to trial flexible and remote working are finding not only that it works, but that it is a great tool to attract and retain talent,” she said.
“Companies are also waking up to the potential of internal training. There is a strong sense that companies won’t go back to the old ways of working and thinking, but instead try to distil the opportunity that the pandemic has brought us, and build a new normal around that.”