You and whose IT army? Why enterprise IT is making a bee-line for the front line

A day doesn’t go by without hearing a new report bemoaning a skills shortage in one area of IT or another. And with the widening gap between the skills needed to compete in the digital economy and the number of graduates leaving university with STEM qualifications, many corporations are having to think out of the box when it comes to finding the talent they need.

Colonel Stewart Sharman, who heads up IT service firm FDM Group’s Ex-Forces Programme, is passionate about helping ex-servicemen and women transition into the corporate IT world, as well as encouraging gender diversity – and thinks companies need to change the way they think about hiring in IT.

‘When I joined the army, they didn’t know how to spell computer- now our lives are being driven by the IT world and the army is no exception,’ says Sharman. ‘There’s a huge amount of sophistication now in the forces in the IT space, across numerous systems, be that drones in the RAF, or dealing with a range of locations across hostile environments. These guys are having to make up solutions on the hoof, often without any support, and when you extrapolate that into the corporate world, they’re a hugely under-used resource in terms of their skills and technical agility.’

Sharman joined FDM Group in January 2014 fresh out of a 30-year career in the British Army, keen to replicate the success of the firm’s US veteran programme across the pond. He’s since helped a large number of UK ex-forces members make the transition from a life in the barracks to a second career in corporate IT, providing them with a ‘soft landing’ by way of tailored specialised training and a minimum two year contract at FDM working with many of its big name clients such as Barclays, Lloyds and Virgin Media, as well as the initial living allowance, support and pastoral care to resettle into civilian life while they train.

‘The first thing that struck me was that for those leaving the services, one size does not fit all,’ says Sharman. ‘With graduates leaving university, their backgrounds are all fairly similar. But with army staff, you have people leaving after two or three years and people having done 40 years. You have a whole variety of shades, backgrounds, technical expertise and experience.’

> See also: The great digital skills gap: why graduates are unprepared for today's workforce

Many of the courses offered are technical, but some – such as the four week advanced project management course – are not heavily technical but based around skills such as extrapolating information from subject matter experts and understanding people’s skillsets, wrapping them together into well delivered projects. Though there are a great many highly technical servicemen and women, as Sharman explains it’s often the softer skills that they particularly excel at.

‘IT is a science, but it’s also an art,’ he says. ‘There’s a misconception that people coming out of the forces can’t task people without shouting and screaming, but actually as time has gone on and it’s got so much more technical at every level, you need a much more inclusive way of dealing with people, communication skills and stakeholder engagement. You have the subject matter experts the same as you do in the corporate world, and whatever rank you’re at you have to rely on those people to be able to provide that information to you. It all ties into the team dynamic.’

‘Forces personnel are also used to moving every couple of years from job to job, and because of this they tend to be adaptable quick thinkers, able to quickly assess the strengths and weaknesses of a new team around them and make decisions.’

So far 75 ex-personnel have been placed through FDM’s programme, ranging from a Tibetan Gherka who joined the British Army as a private and has now been in software testing for FDM for the past year, to a Lieutenant Colonel, having been in the army for 32 years, now heading up the release management process of a major global bank.

There are a whole raft of companies now offering programmes similar to FDM’s, but Sharman argues that more needs to be done to tap the IT talent from across all ranks and backgrounds.

‘Lots of companies have plaudits for having ex-forces hiring campaigns on their literature, but if you asked them how many people do you actually employ in your company, it turns out to be not that many,’ he says. ‘And when they do, it tends to be the young guys, people who already have a degree before joining the army, with the likes of Deloittes and McKensies snapping them up. But there’s a whole range of bright, intelligent people with great skillsets that are going unnoticed.&rsquo.

The UK government offers its own scheme, the Career Transition Partnership, which offers advice and resettlement training. But companies like FDM are providing the gap filler that it would be difficult for the government to fill, by actually taking ex service personnel under their wing and offering them job security.

‘The Armed Forces Select Committee would say they offer a lot of support. But does the government step up and put its money where its mouth is? Probably not,’ says Sharman.

‘When you look at things like the World War I centenary celebrations and the poppy display at the Tower of London to mark the first world war, standing with the forces is very high at the moment,’ says Sharman, ‘but it’s cyclical, and people have very short term memories as to what the forces actually deliver.’

> See also: Businesses must invest in students to solve the STEM software skills gap

For FDM Group, the investment in ex-forces personnel is a win-win: it has opened up a huge pool of unique talent, and brought them recognition in the form of the European Diversity Awards last year, thanks to its long-term commitment to creating a more balanced work force coupled with its hugely successful Women in IT initiative, which has seen the company achieve a 25% female workforce – well above the UK national IT sector average of 17%.

Similar to the ex-forces drive, FDM's Women in IT scheme is about recognising the broad range of skills needed in IT these days beyond just the obvious technical qualifications.

'It's not about being experts in computer science or maths,' says Sharman, 'and for many women, who might have an aptitute for these subjects but have degrees in geography or history, it's a great stepping stone when they wouldn't ordinarily get their CV in through the door.'

'Plus, I'd argue that many women are better at delivering into the solutioneering and problem solving space than a lot of guys,' he adds. 'It's about that attention to detail and the ability to apply logic and to be well disciplined and well planned. It amazes me that there aren't more women in IT because when you look at the skillset required, there are so many women out there who excel in these areas.'

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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