The tech skills shortage has got so bad that tech companies have decided to call in the troops.

In March, Experis and Amazon teamed up to teach software development to military personnel and their spouses through its re:Start programme, while the non-profit TechVets launched a cyber skills training scheme for military veterans.

© iStock/gorodenkoff
© iStock/gorodenkoff

The idea is to address two employment issues in one scheme, by filling the well-documented UK digital skills gap with the underutilised talents of former military personnel.

Working-age veterans are almost twice as likely to be unemployed as their equivalents in the UK general population, according to research by The British Legion.

The 11 percent of veterans who are jobless adds around 120,000 people to the unemployment line.

Schemes like Amazon Web Services' (AWSre:Start initiative can help them find work. The four-week course provides participants with the technical training and soft skills needed to support a career in technology. After they complete the course, AWS works with partners including Experis, Sage, and the MoD to place and support them in IT jobs.

Read next: AWS takes on the UK digital skills gap with re:Start digital training programme

RAF veteran Stephen Davies is among the recent graduates from the scheme.

Davies had spent 18 years as a logistics driver that included tours in Afghanistan when a medical discharge brought his service to a premature end.

The search for a new career brought Davies to an employment fair in Newark where he met a member of AWS re:Start who introduced him to the programme.

"I had no idea what to do," Davies tells Techworld. "But I saw that support is out there that can help myself and others in my situation to get the training to move forward in our lives and establish a second career."

The course gave him the skills to find work in IT and introduced him to companies that were recruiting veterans, including Rackspace, which gave him a placement as a cloud administrator.

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Davies had limited professional experience in technology when he joined the programme, but other veterans such as Emma Howitson-Morley develop deeper expertise during their military service.

Howitson-Morley had served for 18 years in a variety of roles in the army, which included tours of Northern Ireland and two years as an IT project manager. Her experience may have given her a head start in some aspects of the programme, but she believes that it's equally suitable for novices.

"The joy of the course is it literally takes anybody that has a vague interest in it," she tells Techworld.

"There were some very technically astute guys on our course who were way cleverer than I am in this area, and then you had guys who had literally barely switched on a computer.

"There were some extension exercises for those guys who needed it. And then there were additional charges to those people who were struggling with certain areas."

Certain subjects such as programming proved a struggle for some, but the sense of comradeship for which the military is renowned ensured the strong supported the weak.

This openness to novices is why Howitson-Morley believes AWS re:Start will be more successful than the Troops to Teachers Programme, which produced just 69 new teachers after three years at a cost of £4.3 million. Howitson-Morley found work soon after completing the programme, as an ICT Technical Analyst at the NHS Business Services Authority.

"You need to have certain skills or qualifications in order to get onto the programme," she says.

"It was primarily focused on people who wanted to be teachers, whereas I think the AWS programme is much more inclusive. You don't have to have a background in IT. You don't have to have a computer science degree or something to go into it."

Why are tech companies turning to veteran talent?

Turning troops into techies is already yielding results across the pond. Programmes such as Vets Who Code, VetDevs, Code Platoon and Operation Code are training veterans in tech skills, and companies including Microsoft, Uber and LinkedIn are actively seeking recruits with military backgrounds.

In 2016, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to hire 25,000 veterans and their spouses, while Dell, EMC, HPE and Tesla all committed to recruiting 1,000-3,000 new employees from the military.

Amazon launched the AWS re:Start training and job placement programme in the UK the next year.

The tech giants aren't only making charitable gestures. TechVets claims that only four percent of veterans are working in tech and cyber, despite many of them having the skills to be highly successful.

The deficit is particularly acute in cloud computing, which helps explain the interest of Experis in joining AWS re:Start. The recruiting and consultant company estimates that the number of cloud roles for IT professionals almost doubled in a year ending in the first quarter of 2017.

Read next: Why should I become a web developer?

"Experis is not just committed to finding the best talent in the marketplace for our clients, but also training and developing people with the right skills to help the market to bridge the growing cloud demand gap," Experis Europe MD Geoff Smith announced in a statement.

"We recognise that there is a digital skills shortage, and rather than just comment on it, we want to work with the industry to help address this problem."

Veterans offer an untapped resource that comes with skills and experiences rarely found in the sector.

"It's our potential key skills beyond just IT," says Davies. "All the discipline, time-keeping, management, leadership. All the things that we take for granted day to day, they like that we've got them already in a package, and they just want to extract them into their business."

The companies recognise that they won't have a finished product after a four-week course, but will have somebody with the ability and desire to develop into a valuable member of the team.

"A lot of people from the military are problem solvers and quite logical by nature," explains Howitson-Morley.

"A lot of what we do is thinking on our feet and having to problem solve, and in the IT area that's really the crux of it. It's about looking at things and seeing how you can do them better. We're very good at doing that in the military, so I think it's a good fit."

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