Recruit from alternative education pathways to build a healthy tech workforce

In 2022, the UK government announced it would do away with so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees.

In dubbing that phrase, they referred to those courses not deemed valuable enough to develop the workforce of the future. Given the now essential role of technology in business, you might think there is logic in this. But can anyone make such a conclusive decision about which education paths and skills are valuable or not?

Recruitment need not be based on such a neat fit between course and job role, which raises a debate around where businesses should be looking for their talent, and what skills are most valuable. After all, technology evolves rapidly, and with it, the skills businesses need to keep up. Despite the recent wobbles in the tech market, it has traditionally been a reliable career option, however the industry is still not hiring enough talent to meet the pace of innovation.

One thing is certain, if we are to meet this demand, government and businesses alike can’t afford to dismiss candidates that have studied so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses. In fact, the soft skills they develop, like creative thinking and problem solving, have become some of the most valuable and sought after in the tech world. We shouldn’t pigeonhole our future tech workforce; by doing so, we risk missing out on much broader talent that brings different attributes to the fore.

Unlocking a new talent pool

The tech industry moves so fast that the demands of the job market are continually shifting too. However, software engineers in particular remain a difficult role to fill. But the demand is so high that businesses cannot afford to reject applicants who have not studied computer science. Despite this, we’re seeing an increasing number of students being forced to study technical degrees to gain the skills that businesses think they need.

According to data from UCAS, acceptances onto computer science courses have risen by almost 50% in the last decade, and applications onto newer courses, such as AI, have increased by 400%. Meanwhile, there has been a drop in the proportion of UK students studying humanities subjects, falling from around 28% to around just 8%.

But that doesn’t mean they are any less important to the tech-centric workforce of the future. To disregard them means missing out on much broader and much needed talent.

Diversity of thought through diverse educational paths

There’s a widespread belief that non-STEM degrees do not equip talent with the right skills to work in the tech industry. But this is far from the truth. Working with emerging technologies, like AI and Quantum, requires soft skills that are often only acquired through non-STEM subjects.

Businesses must therefore realise the advantages of building teams with diversity of thought. This means employing candidates from varying socio-economic backgrounds, but also from different educational routes.

Computer science isn’t the be all and end all. In fact, many of the best software engineers come from non-technical backgrounds in arts and humanities. That’s because software development is an art, and developers are digital artists. Recruiting them exclusively from STEM subjects at university prevents them from developing the creativity that is a vital part of coding. And if they have the skills – transferable or direct – snobbery should not get in the way of hiring them.

Learn skills, not qualifications

In fact, it’s critical that the qualities businesses look for in future candidates go beyond qualifications because they are so short-lived. The current half-life of a technical skill stands at 2.5 years, meaning that skill will be virtually obsolete without being evolved in some way. This makes curiosity, communication and ambition crucial soft skills to hire for, retain and nurture.

Curiosity drives individuals to expand their learning, which in turn demonstrates desire to undertake courses to develop new tech skills. Those who show a commitment to continuous learning have a better chance of remaining employable. But these individuals also help their organisations get ahead of the competition. They aren’t complacent and by regularly upskilling, they can embed the latest technological thinking and drive innovation.

In an industry that is literally powering technological advancement, it’s also crucial that those pursuing technical careers are great problem solvers. The pairing of creativity and problem solving is a recipe for a successful software engineer who can talk beyond the ‘what’ they are doing, to the ‘why’ behind their processes. These soft skills create a unique ability to communicate beyond just the technical, one which is key at boardroom level.

Variety is the spice of life

Instead of eradicating degrees that don’t appear compatible with the increasing role of technology in business, we need to understand that the future workforce will benefit from variety. Take the US higher education system; it enables its students to undertake a variety of subjects, instead of locking them into a specific subject. This allows students to be more flexible and learn a diverse set of skills, which are often transferable to a range of industries.

Exposure to multiple subjects beyond core STEM qualifications will shape well-rounded staff who are ready for the future workforce. From a business perspective, bringing together teams with a variety of skillsets means they will benefit from balanced workforces that can innovate, evolve and learn, rather than stagnate.

To remain competitive as a leading tech nation, it’s critical that UK businesses understand the relevance of talent that isn’t overtly non-technical. Skills-based recruitment, rather than an obsession with technical qualifications, can ensure a steady flow of professionals entering the tech workforce and give us a chance to meet demand.

About the Author

Sam Rowlands is Co-founder and Community Director at Distributed. Through the Distributed platform clients can work with fully managed, globally distributed teams of highly skilled software engineers allowing them to build and maintain software faster, more efficiently, cost-effectively, and with more visibility than ever before.

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