The Digital Skills Gap – and Why Your Kids Should Study the Arts


A recent survey of hiring and recruiting managers found that 9 out of 10 companies struggle to find workers with needed IT and tech skills. For rapidly growing areas such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), analysts say demand for expertise is “unprecedented.”

It makes sense that booming new fields are experiencing a shortage of digital skills. But given the pace and depth of change we’re seeing, are traditional expectations around recruitment still relevant? For many positions, it’s no longer feasible to find people who can tick off the boxes on a checklist and step in on day one and be productive. And while demand for basic RPA certifications is through the roof, the rapid growth of machine learning and cognitive capabilities suggests a surging need for increasingly complex and diverse skill sets.

We’ve all heard anecdotes about employers demanding five years of experience in a field that didn’t even exist three years earlier. It’s similarly unreasonable to expect that trolling LinkedIn, scanning keywords on resumes and dangling lucrative bonuses will magically produce the right candidates. Consider too that a hiring strategy based on rigid requirements isn’t likely to produce the innovative and creative talent businesses claim to be desperate for.

Rather than basing a search on a checklist of qualifications, perhaps employers should look for candidates who have the talent and skills to grow into positions and who can be trained for specific roles. Obviously, this requires investment, a long-term perspective and new approaches to training. The alternative, however, is to fall into the risky trap of applying old approaches to new problems.

A more open – and open-minded – approach to recruitment also implies that we need to look beyond traditional skill sets; specifically, beyond the default assumption that a STEM degree is the best and perhaps only path to a successful career in the tech field. The mantra we hear about AI and Machine Learning is that smart tools will free us from routine tasks and allow us to do more “creative” work. If true, wouldn’t that suggest that at least some training in the arts might be valuable – particularly to businesses focused on dramatic transformation?

The competitive imperative to fundamentally rethink approaches to business is central to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) education. By incorporating art and design into science and engineering curricula, STEAM programs aim to inject an element of right-brain innovation to traditional analytical skill sets. The potential result: a powerful combination of visionary creativity and technical expertise – one that would attract businesses aiming to go beyond incremental improvement and imagine radically new ways of doing business.

At an industry conference a few years ago, Coupa Software CEO Rob Bernshteyn was asked about the skills gap, and about what types of workers would succeed in the new age of digital transformation and intelligent tools. His response: “People who can look at things with a fresh set of eyes.”

New possibilities – an encouraging thought for all the college kids going back to school now and agonizing about courses, majors and what to do after graduation.