How can the defence sector solve the tech skills gap?

Writing for Defence Online, Nick Walrond, Managing Director of Sanderson’s Government & Defence team, examines the issue of the technology skills shortage.

There has been a tech skills shortage in the defence sector for as long as I’ve worked in it (18 years if you really want to know). Companies need technical specialists to drive forward innovation and respond to threats to national security, but put simply, the talent pool can’t keep up.

Not an isolated issue

This isn’t a problem which is specific to government and defence – there is a massive shortage of highly skilled digital specialists in the economy as a whole. (ISC)²’s Global Workforce Survey has predicted a shortage of 1.8 million information security professionals by 2022. My clients tell me daily that they can’t train people quickly enough to meet demand.

This is a major concern for business – three quarters of UK CIOs believe that they will face more security threats in the next five years, not as a result of increased cyber-attacks, but because they can’t recruit the right people. According to TechUK, the UK currently has the third highest global demand for cyber security jobs – and employer demand for cyber security skills is three times higher than candidate interest.

This huge skills gap forces private and public sector organisations alike to fight over the same scarce pool of candidates. In the race for talent, however, defence recruiters face additional hurdles of lengthy procurement, rigid pay scales and tight security clearance – it can seem like a mountain to climb.

So, with all this in mind, how can you compete? As with any challenge, taking the time to recognise the hurdles is the first step on the road to success.


Planning for the long-term

All too often we still see that recruitment in the defence space is still typically a reactive process, driven by urgent need rather than long-term strategy. This process won’t work in a market which requires high levels of security clearance. 

You could spend months advertising and re-advertising the same roles to no avail. Sought after candidates with the right skills are put off by lengthy procurement processes and rigid pays scales in the public sector, and even private sector suppliers can struggle to compete with the appeal of consumer tech companies.


A question of clearance

Once the right candidate is found, clearance can take a long time – up to 12 months at the highest level. Candidates for senior roles must typically be British nationals with at least five years’ residence – defence companies are fishing from a very small pool. Added to this, the Government and its supply chain are often expanding at the same time, in the same field and location, they’re competing to get the attention of the same few individuals.

The end result can be vast numbers of vacancies and massive delays to projects. This can create a big discrepancy between official policy and the reality on the ground. We have all seen public sector organisations announce the opening of new offices then spend years attempting to find core teams. Private sector contractors often save the day, able to jump in with the right talent and skills at short notice. Those who can, however, are only able to do so through their own forward planning.


Addressing the skills gap

These challenges are not going to be solved overnight, so a long-term strategy for talent development is essential. However, in the short term, this planning can be complemented by some good lateral thinking.

The Government has sought to address the structural problem by establishing the National Cyber Security Strategy (NCSS). The NCSS has engaged extensively with industry, existing cyber security professionals and academia to better understand the nature of the challenge. Its primary aim is to ensure that ‘the UK has a sustainable supply of home-grown cyber skilled professionals to meet the growing demands of an increasingly digital economy, in both the public and private sectors, and defence.’

Thankfully, a new pan-government framework is also providing a platform for government customers to engage with suppliers in a more dynamic and talent-centred way. Previous frameworks could have been viewed as transactional, based on a real time view of candidates and vacancies. Now, government defence organisations can inform accredited providers they need X positions filling in a year, enabling recruitment teams to take a long-term view and find the candidate with the necessary tech skills and clearance in advance.

 You cannot, however, rely on such initiatives to secure your talent pipeline. You need to do your own strategic thinking as well.


Talent pooling

When it comes to tactics, process-based recruitment doesn’t work in a talent short market-place. It’s impossible to attract niche, hard to find and scarce talent by running a rigid process – you need to develop a talent market. As a recruiter in the sector, we often know and have already vetted all the talent of a particular level or with relevant qualifications in each region. This means we have a talent pool ready to go as and when the need arises, with no time delays for security clearance.

To do this yourself means identifying all the skilled candidates with the relevant clearance in a particular location and nurturing a relationship with them. Speak to them regularly. Engage them. Find out what interests them. This way, defence organisations can build connections with potential talent and create a vital pipeline. In the long run, it will streamline recruitment and be a lot more effective than advertising and re-advertising roles with little or no cut through.


Brand building

Building a brand proposition is also key – skilled workers may not currently have a strong perception of a particular organisation, but this can be developed. By listening to potential talent and communicating regularly, misconceptions can be removed, creating an employer brand that appeals to potential applicants.

This approach is multi-dimensional and much more long-term. It isn’t transactional. It may take a couple of years to find the right position for an individual, but once it has been identified the appointment process can be swift and efficient.

Some defence companies have taken to building such a strong relationship with their clients that they are trusted to run projects off site at their own facilities. This means teams can then be located in alternative regional hubs, changing the catchment area and not competing for the same candidates as everyone else. It also has the potential to remove the issue of project delays, by widening the pool of potential candidates, enabling activity to begin almost instantly.



A real long-term solution might be found in re-skilling. In addition to making use of apprenticeships, some companies and government departments have started to invest in skills academies.

 It is not only younger workers who might fill the gap though – we are working closely with a partner to enrol ex-servicemen and officers on cyber training courses, before finding them key roles in the industry. These individuals often have the temperament and motivation for defence work, not to mention a certain level of security clearance already. They can learn quickly and adapt fast, ready for employment. Once in the job, strong loyalty can be built to the sector.


Invest for the future

These strategies aren’t quick wins, so will not have an immediate impact but will deliver real benefits two years down the line; forward thinking companies will have a cohort of talented and loyal workers who feel invested in and valued, whilst those focusing solely on ‘todays’ problems will continue to suffer.

Whether in the public or private sector, the technology skills gap has long been an issue which seemed to be unsolvable. However, by taking a long-term approach to recruitment and investing in talent markets, any organisation can get ahead of the competition and secure the best, most-sought after defence professionals.


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