Schools, colleges and universities are among the first places channel firms may look when trying to address the growing problem of the IT skills gap. Young people are regularly targeted by the industry in a bid to lure them straight into entry-level roles in the hope they will stick around for the long haul. But as the number of IT vacancies continues to soar, EMC has decided to look elsewhere - to the military.
According to EU data, there were more than 700,000 unfilled ICT jobs across Europe in 2013 and the UK government claims 20,000 British military personnel leave the Forces each year. Realising there could be an untapped resource available to the industry, EMC launched a new initiative to kill two birds with one stone: provide ex-servicepeople with long-term careers while plugging the UK's IT skills gap.
The storage giant has invested £250,000 in a new scheme designed to train up ex-Forces personnel in its technology so that, on completion, they can work at one of its UK channel partners, or even start up their own EMC reseller.
EMC will send the military leavers on a technical training course and its partner X-Forces - which specialises in helping military personnel into careers in their civilian lives - will help with mentoring and even sourcing start-up loans.
Mind the gap
The IT skills gap is a big problem. According to research from managed services specialist Reconnix released last year, nearly three quarters of UK firms are struggling to recruit properly skilled technology staff, with web-application development, internet and networking, and data analysis highlighted as the main talent black spots. Last summer, Microsoft UK said the channel skills gap was stifling the cloud industry, and ranked the issue among its partners' top concerns.
EMC's UK public sector director Ian Heath said that sadly, his firm was not immune from the problem either.
"One of the main challenges we have at EMC is identifying people with the right skill set because there is a generic skills gap right across the IT sector at the moment," he said.
"Internally, with our channel partners and with customers in their IT departments - everyone is facing this challenge. It is something that is recognised at a government level as well. In order for the UK to continue to grow and lead the way in tech - which is one of the ambitions of government - all parties need to address how we fill that and how we bring those people in."
Before his career in IT, Heath served as a captain in the British Army, so the Forces was high on his list of places to look when searching for skilled people.
"We needed to look into where we could find a pool of very skilled, very talented people to help fill that gap," he said. "There are a number of us at EMC who have served in various guises within the military so it started that discussion that it could be a really good place to find talent, and that is when the work started with X-Forces."
X-Forces specialises in helping service leavers, veterans, reservists and cadets - along with their spouses and families - get into business after leaving the military. To date, the organisation has supported nearly 300 businesses and has dished out £3.12m in start-up loans to ex-Forces personnel.
It takes all sorts
Heath said that ex-Forces staff are perfect for the technology and business worlds, making resellers an ideal home for them.
"The training the Army gives them, the leadership instilled within them and the adaptability they have after having been trained in a military environment makes them ideally suited to working in an IT organisation," he said.
"It's not just the technical roles - on the support desk or on the service team - we see the Army provides skills ranging from management positions through to sales roles and admin positions as well."
Initially, EMC will offer its channel training scheme to 20 ex-military personnel, but it said it would invest further in the initiative in coming years. The EMC technical training course lasts for only seven weeks, but it will make tech materials and mentoring available to trainees for 12 months.
The scheme is available to personnel of all ranks and experience, Heath said, adding that the variety of skills can benefit its resellers in a range of ways.
"If we were taking a private soldier within the Army, they would be looking at a very different role to a regimental sergeant major or a senior officer," he said.
"If we took a senior officer [for example], they have years and years of leadership experience which can be invaluable to a channel partner potentially in a chief operating officer role."
Heath said he has every faith in the scheme, partly informed by his own experience of going from the military into IT.
"I personally discovered that I used the training and experiences I had in the military every single day," he said. "There's not a week that goes by now where I am faced with a challenge or a situation where I don't revert back to when this happened in Cyprus, Northern Ireland or Bosnia and think ‘this is how I reacted to that'.
"It instilled a good work ethic and a good process and procedure within me."
And it seems the path from the Forces to IT is a well-trodden one despite the stark contrast in day-to-day duties involved in each role.
Andy Trish (pictured), managing director of Cornwall reseller NCI Technologies, spent 17 years as a naval airman in the Royal Navy before founding his firm. He said his experience was invaluable.
"I am very proud of the skills both technically and personally that Armed Forces personnel have drilled into them," he said. "IT is a great profession for people who can't afford to make mistakes when serving and want to continue excelling at their jobs. The more we can help ex-service people, the greater chances our nation will have of remaining a Great Britain to work in."
Pensar IT's chief executive Mark Williams served in the Military Police unit of the British Army after completing his A-Levels. After a four-year stint, he decided to brush up on his IT skills, which eventually led to an Apple training course which saw him complete four placements with resellers of various sizes, which in turn led to his first channel job.
"Looking back on it, I got the job because of my military experience, which was very useful," he said. "Being in the Forces, you are given a lot of responsibility at a young age - there is a lot of training but it is still a lot of responsibility. You deal with a broad range of people - one minute you might be arresting a drunken squaddie and the next you might be going for tea at the General's house. You get used to dealing with a complete spectrum of life and different people... and that is the reality when you are selling. You meet a cross-section of people, so having the ability to converse and interact with people at any level is an invaluable experience.
"By the time I left the Army I was in charge of a shift of people covering an area the size of Wales. I was making the decisions, and when it came to running my own company, the Army experience was directly relevant."
He added that a number of Pensar staff have also served, giving them a range of valuable skills.
"They are adaptable, flexible and go the extra mile," he said. "They don't fuss about things and won't be too demanding. They are not high maintenance and just get on with it."
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