Is the Net wide enough?

Is the Net wide enough?

Businessman holding virtual human icon for focus customer group

While telcos and tech companies continue to tackle the problem, Capacity asks whether we are casting our nets wide enough when it comes to telecoms talent.

A widely accepted truth in the telecoms industry is it has a talent problem. Amid rapid digitisation and the move to 5G, the issue is becoming increasingly urgent. With demand outstripping supply, an aging workforce, low recruitment numbers, lack of diversity and growing competition from big tech are adding to the issue.

The big picture

Now, as telecommunications firms focus on the digital transformation of their networks and operations, the question is whether they casting their recruitment nets wide enough to find talent. Many in the industry say there is not enough is being done to upskill current workers, increase diversity and attract young people to the sector in the first place.

Digital skills are a major issue, according to ‘How tech, media, and telecom winners use talent to stay ahead’, a report from McKinsey Insights, which says talent has become a “far more difficult resource to acquire and retain” for the sector. This is fuelled by companies competing with every other industry for the scarce amount of digital talent around, which has been further impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The need for data scientists, for example, greatly outstrips supply, according to McKinsey. The problem is especially acute in telecoms, where as much as 88% of digital talent who switch companies decide to leave the sector altogether. Telecoms firms are failing to see the benefits of recruiting outside of the industry and need to “broaden their horizons”, according to Charlotte Goodwill, chief executive of The Institute of Telecoms Professionals (ITP).

“We are letting talent slip through our fingers simply because the candidates don’t have a telecoms background,” says Goodwill. “Employers need to look beyond people who already have experience, and broaden their focus to personality and character.”

Vishal Mathur, global head of engagement at the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) thinks more can be done to maximise talent the industry already has. “The telco industry is currently undergoing rapid transformation, with the move towards more software-centric networks, so we need to shift our attention towards modernising and reskilling the workforce.”

In 2021, 90% of TIP’s members agreed there was a gap in the market for sectorwide training opportunities. Vishal says TIP launched TIP Academy, a vendor-neutral industry training platform, in conjunction with Accenture to address this.

Initiatives such as this can help, but the problem is not simple to solve. Currently, the shortage is being compounded by companies hungry for talent being willing to pay higher than the norm to secure staff, says Goodwill. “This is creating a situation seeing more telco companies competing in an industry where salaries and talent are at an all-time high and low respectively,” she says.

Diversity in telecoms

Diversity is another issue. While firms often have initiatives in place, race, gender, faith and sexuality can be stumbling blocks in access to the industry. Despite a general drive towards equality, gender diversity is a welltrodden but still prominent issue.

In 2022, women made up just 26% of the tech workforce, while, according to research by Women in Tech, 56% of women leave the tech industry 10 to 20 years into their careers which is double the rate of men. “It is down to the industry to remove the barriers that stop women and other minority groups from progressing,” says Kelsey Hopkinson, vice-president of ESG at Colt Technology Services.

The problem can run much deeper. A lack of diversity already inside a company can be a block to attracting talent, says Thea Tanner, commercial and propositions director, BT Wholesale. “While there has been a greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the channel, companies and leaders must continue to keep it at the forefront of business strategies,” says Tanner. “While several programmes and initiatives exist in the industry, there are very few examples of actions that have truly driven equity and many individuals within minority groups continue to feel unrepresented in leadership.”

Examining bias

This issue is compounded by unconscious bias: employers tend to recruit people who are like them, unless they challenge their own way of thinking. The Tech Hiring Survey 2022 by CodingGame & CoderPad found that up to 66% of recruiters agree bias is an issue in tech. To help tackle the issue, Colt launched the ‘Actioning Inclusion’ campaign, which explained unconscious bias and made it clear that inclusion is “something active”, says Hopkinson.

“This means it’s something we need to do purposefully and consciously,” says Hopkinson. “Inclusion is something we can learn in the same way we can improve our communication skills, become more commercially aware or get better at problem-solving.” Yet businesses should not solely rely on tick-box exercises and only focus on outwardly visible diversity, says Goodwill. “Without a genuine focus on equity, inclusion and belonging, your efforts may be doing more harm than good.

Inclusion should be made a priority by organisations by considering their culture and working environment too.” Beyond race, gender, faith and sexuality, age can be an issue as well, says Hopkinson. “We need to cater to a multigenerational workforce. Work must continue to create an inclusive culture, and a big part of that is creating a culture of belonging, where people from all walks of life feel like they can contribute to success.”

At the same time, many in the industry think it is harder to find young talent. There seem to be less positions open for juniors than seniors in IT and telecoms, says Anne Nikula, vice-president of people and culture at Qvantel. To help ensure diversity, companies should put an emphasis on recruiting trainees and juniors and focus on their employment journey, she says.

Recruiting for talent

Part of the issue is that young people are not always aware of the jobs available in the telecoms sector, according to George Barnes, CEO of recruitment company Hamilton Barnes. It is with this in mind that his firm regularly visits career fairs and other events to talk about the opportunities available across the telecoms and networking sector.

While companies do not always understand where to look for talent, they also often fail to attract it, says Barnes. He advises organisations to examine the inclusivity of their employment policies as well as making recruitment processes accessible by rethinking traditional styles. “For instance, a neurodivergent person may find a technical interview easier than a personal or conversational one.”

Telecoms firms also need the right applicants to be applying for jobs in the first place. “If a company is not receiving enough applications from women during the recruitment process, it’s time to ask some hard questions,” Nikula says. “How are we perceived? What kind of an image do we give through communication and marketing? Is diversity marketed internally and externally? Do we have equal opportunities for all employees, and do we show examples of career success stories?”

Goodwill thinks companies now need to diversify their outreach channels and actively seek out candidates. “There are many organisations who work with historically marginalised groups who have pools of candidates just looking for the right opportunity,” she says. “Reach out to your local council, government associations, schools, colleges and universities. Don’t rely solely on job boards and hoping the candidates come to you.” It is not just about aptitude. Companies should not be underestimating the value of attitude in hiring, says Goodwill. “Hiring for personality, interest and drive and training the necessary skills will lead to a more motivated, adaptable and loyal workforce. After all, culture is influenced by attitude, and a bad culture is a sure-fire path to bad results.”

Under your wing

People in the industry agree more needs to be done to attract the right talent into careers in telecoms. Apprenticeships provide a great opportunity to do this, says Tanner. “Apprenticeship schemes provide practical experience, allowing apprentices to get stuck into the everyday job role, as well as theoretical training. This means businesses can ensure apprentices are prepared for a variety of roles once they finish.”

A company can also tailor an apprenticeship scheme to best suit its business needs. This makes it possible to fast-track apprentices into roles affected by the skills shortage, Tanner explains. Karen Handley, head of future careers at Virgin Media O2, describes the firm’s apprenticeship programme, which she says has created more than 2,600 apprenticeship jobs since 2008.

The company has a “blind recruitment process” with no prior experience necessary. The company acknowledges that as part of the apprenticeship, the technical skills will develop in time. “We look for those intangible but much needed qualities – such as strong communication, drive, critical thinking, teamwork and a positive attitude,” says Handley. As the skills shortage grows, telecoms firms are realising that change requires investment, and at least some of the focus should be internal.

Learning and development programmes are crucial for retaining talent as the number of skilled jobs in the telecoms industry grows, says Tanner. She says upskilling current employees is “critical” to an organisation’s growth. “Without nurturing employees’ skills, telecoms companies are at risk of siloing knowledge and hindering employees’ progress. By investing in their people, firms are much more likely to retain the best talent and see a greater return on investment through business growth.”

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