Asks CEOs, recruiters, entrepreneurs and HR managers about the employment situation in the UK and they will all tell you the same thing: the UK is suffering from a severe skills shortage.

In the tech industry this problem is fast becoming chronic. Politicians of all political hues have waded into the debate to attribute a source to the problem. Some pointing to the schools system, others to too much immigration or too little, and the rest blaming universities, the attitude of young people or businesses. It’s easy to opine about why there aren’t enough people within the job market with the right level of skill, but it’s much more productive to look at solutions. In our experience, the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) that we have with The University of Essex could be the answer if it is applied on a wider basis and across other industry sectors.

Henrik Nordmark is head of data science at data science consultancy Profusion. Image credit: Profusion

In a nutshell, a KTP aims to improve postgraduate skills and business research by creating a framework where a university can send a recent postgraduate to an organisation to undertake a specified project. The cost of the project is shared between the Government and the organisation.

It’s a win-win situation, postgraduates quickly improve their skills and get valuable work-experience, businesses get additional support, the completion of a useful project and to assess, for minimal cost, a potential new recruit. At Profusion, we’ve used our KTP to help build our data science team and undertake important research that has aided business development.

Normally, recruiting highly skilled data scientists would be a laborious process, there simply aren’t that many out there in the UK. Thanks to the KTP, we had the opportunity to interview a solid list of candidates both directly and from the extended network of The University of Essex and indirectly via positive word of mouth.

An opportunity for all tech companies

According to Innovate UK, there are currently 800 collaborations between organisations and universities resulting in 10,000 KTPs. Around 70 percent of graduates are offered employment at the end of the KTP. My point is not to wax lyrical about what we are doing and KTPs in general, but to make it clear that there is no reason that KTPs or similar mechanisms cannot be adopted en masse by tech companies. There isn’t a solid figure on how many startups have taken advantage of KTPs, but from a cursory look at the organisations involved, the numbers aren’t huge.

On the one hand, I’m sure many tech startups would argue that they don’t require heavy-hitting academic quality research. However, that’s missing the point of a KTP and reflects a short-sighted approach to skills-development. For minimal cost and risk, tech companies can establish a mechanism where they get a first look at students with excellent potential. As there is no commitment to hire, the research project can also be seen as an extended job interview. It can also act as a break on the drain of top quality graduates to the financial sector by educating graduates on alternative career paths that don’t have traditional graduate recruitment and training schemes.

At the moment the KTP programme is relatively small and is designed to cover highly specialised technical skills. Nevertheless, it reflects an excellent blueprint for how larger public-private development and recruitment projects could work. If government funding for KTPs was increased and its benefits more widely known, it could provide a silver bullet for the tech skills gap.

Startups should be proactive

In the interim, more startups should consider approaching universities to set up ad-hoc, informal partnerships that will give faculty members a clearer indication of the skills and knowledge that is required and also provide more hands-on training for students and graduates. The tech sector is incredibly dynamic and it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach a curriculum with the flexibility and range that is needed.

Failure to address the tech skills gap through more hands-on training and closer collaboration will only perpetuate the creation of a generation of graduates that have limited options within the UK’s tech industry.

Addressing the problem is in everyone’s interest, as a limited pool of talent slows growth and pushes up hiring costs. If a KTP can provide Profusion with a supply of data scientists, arguably, currently the most niche and increasingly sought after skill set in the tech industry, then there is no reason why, if applied on an institutional basis, it can’t go a long way to solving the industry-wide recruitment problem.

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