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The Surprise Appearance of the IT Skills Gap at SXSW

If it gets on the agenda at a hipster conference on the hipster Third Coast in Austin, it’s got to be real, right? SXSW Interactive tackled the thorny topic of the IT skills gap in a spirited panel discussion on March 11.

Skills gapThe IT skills gap has been a topic of concern in the industry for some time now. And let’s be clear: The reason for the gap is not a shortage of people, per se. Rather, it’s a shortage of people with the right skills to fill the open jobs that need filling.


Alas, IT is a field in which “any warm body” falls far short of meeting the requirements for high-tech jobs that demand the job holder possess specific bodies of technical knowledge and the skills to go with them. As many IT or HR managers have said about the skills gap of late:


“It’s not that I can find people. There are plenty of people out there. It’s that I can’t find the right people, with the right skills to fill the jobs that I have open.”


A New Spin on an Old Idea


A panel discussion at tres hip film-and-music festival South by Southwest (better known as the acronymic SXSW) attempted to address this mismatch by suggesting a variety of strategies to help prospective job candidates acquire and develop the right skills to help them not just fill, but excel at those open jobs currently begging to be occupied.


The title of the session, "Apprenticeships and Solving the IT Skills Gap," dredges up a venerable European concept related to the so-called trades of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: craftspeople used to have to begin in a trade as an apprentice, before becoming a journeyman, and then eventually a master of their profession.


Modern workers certainly wouldn’t surrender their autonomy and all their time and energy for seven years or longer — the duration of a typical medieval apprenticeship — in exchange for room, board, and learning a trade. That was the deal back then, believe it or not.


There is still something to be said, however, for an educational system that puts beginners under the oversight and control of an acknowledged master to guide their efforts: Someone who can ensure they learn the basics and acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to start establishing some mastery of their own.


Workplace Experience


The panel covered various approaches to education that differ from a traditional classroom situation with lectures to present concepts, and labs or hands-on exercises in which to put such learning to work.


The apprenticeship model means providing some basic introductory classroom training to kick things off. But it quickly puts apprentices into the workplace where they can see how the real professionals do things, and learn by watching what others do and how they do it.


And of course, apprentices also learn by doing whatever they can do to help their co-workers move workaday processes along to completion. This kind of "training in the round" also explains why internships are increasingly popular (and relevant) for future employment.


They, too, involve workplace experience and exposure that tells employers that candidates have some idea about what they’re getting themselves into, and are better informed about what will be expected of them and how to function properly and effectively in the workplace.