The digital talent gap: why it exists and how to solve it

Two conversations in two days demonstrate that there is a real talent gap in the digital sector. In some regards, it’s impossible to solve. In others it’s easy. Candidates and recruiters just have to think properly about what it is they’re looking for.

But first, let’s talk about what we can’t solve: the fact that there was a drastic digital market recession and, no, not the global economic one from which we’re still seeking to recover.

The bubble bursts

In 2000, I was part of a digital business that had its funding cancelled and the bailiffs sent round almost immediately because the dotcom bubble burst. We even ‘reported our own demise’. Wildly inflated expectations about the potential for digital businesses to turn revenues (let alone profits) in the short-term came home to roost as investors got a shared case of the jitters and cut their losses. As a journalist my days shifted almost overnight from stories of launches and hirings to shutdowns and redundancies.

Naysayers were everywhere, keen to celebrate how right they’d been that digital was ‘a fad’, all the while failing to notice that their ‘nays’ were being said over email, chat forums and mobile phones – you know, digital channels that had barely existed a few years earlier.

Anyway, a significant impact of the crash – apart from the singular rise of search-engine marketing (which could prove much more easily that it worked) – was an enormous shortage of university graduates entering the industry between 2000 and, say, 2004. First because they didn’t have jobs to go to and then because those entering into higher education steered away from ‘digital’ courses expecting there to be few roles for them when they emerged. As it turns out they were wrong, digital ad spend continued its inexorable rise (thanks chiefly to Google) but one can hardly blame them for believing what they read.

Where are they now?

Those people would now have 11 to 15 years’ experience. If straight-from-school university graduates they’d be aged between 32 and 36. And guess where the talent gap is? Yup.

I’ve tracked this lost generation since it first became clear it existed: about eight years ago when companies could not find ‘third-jobbers’, people that had done the post-graduate job, arrived at an industry they liked, and were ready to push on. Good, smart people with a couple of years’ digital experience could not be found for love nor money. Trust me, those people have spent their entire careers being paid over the odds and well done them because they chose digital when so few did.

Filling the hole

So that’s why the talent gap exists. How does it get solved? Two themes have emerged and they appear rather straightforward:

1. If you are a client advertiser looking to hire in-house expertise, raid the agencies

I heard this week that clients are reluctant to hire from agencies because they often have bad experiences working with them. They’re also I know looking for people with experience in the more organisationally-sensitive environment one finds at client advertisers, most of which are large institutions with significantly more embedded cultures and fixed ways of doing things.

In my experience, poor agency relationships almost always find their root cause at the client. Without clear vision and objectives, appropriate internal structures and processes, and openness to ideas and expertise, the relationship does not work – and that all gets set by the client, which is in fact often the problem. Clients should rely on agencies to help them do all this. They are experts in their discipline working across multiple sectors and organisations. Trust their expertise and just layer on your business.

And this expertise is exactly what’s required internally at a client if it wants cutting-edge thinking and answers. A client can offer agency people stability, the chance to work on just one long-lasting project, and to add organisational and strategic context to their particular area of skill. At the age we’re talking about, all that is invaluable for the next steps they’ll want to take in their careers.

2. Broaden your pool of candidates by seeking talent and experience not knowledge

I’ve said before that ‘being good’ at something is a transferable skill; what smart, driven, enthusiastic people can learn about an industry, a company and a discipline never fails to surprise. But it’s nigh-on impossible to replace experience in things like the management of people, both up and down. So look for those things in candidates not the fact they’ve managed the precise kind of plan, spreadsheet or technology they’ll be managing in their new thing.

The talent gap in digital is an unavoidable challenge but, as with all things, an opportunity too.

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