Fiona Inglis and Sam Wilson have a lot in common. Both started out studying sciences – infectious diseases for Inglis, zoology for Wilson – before switching to web development; both began apprenticeships at Edinburgh software business Foritt during the coronavirus pandemic; and both have gone straight into the third year of Edinburgh Napier University’s software development degree. Yet they have never met.
Thanks to coronavirus, their experience embarking on a new career – from finding jobs, to being interviewed and then inducted – has been handled remotely. That has brought a whole new level of strangeness to the working lives of a couple of twenty-somethings who, until early 2020, had been used to mixing with people.
“I’ve not seen our office yet,” says Wilson. “I’m not having a bad time because the job is great and I’m making do. It’s not ideal but there are worse things to be upset about.”
It’s very unusual, Inglis agrees. “I do look forward to the day when I get to be physically in the presence of my co-workers, but there are some upsides – the work-life balance is smoother.”
Inglis and Wilson are lucky. At a time when job cuts across the tech industry have flooded the market with experienced candidates, employers are finding fewer reasons to take on fresh blood that they will have to mentor and support from a distance. That is why for the junior roles that are available, candidates like them, who have proven experience in another setting, stand out.
“Companies might not have the capacity to mentor graduates at the moment, so they are tending to go for more experience, even if it’s just two years,” says independent recruiter Kelli Buchan. “Graduates that have done some kind of internship are going to be much more attractive than a fresh graduate that has done no [office] work.”
Gaining that experience at this particular moment will be easier said than done, even though the tech sector as a whole escaped the worst ravages of the coronavirus pandemic. Research released by job sites Adzuna.co.uk and WorkinStartups.com in April showed that tech hiring activity plummeted by 31 per cent in the early days of lockdown, with the equivalent of over 25,000 vacancies lost between March and April. Airbnb, Google and Facebook were among those dramatically reducing the number of roles on offer; Monzo and WeWork furloughed staff; and scale-ups including online mortgage broker Habito, beauty treatment booking platform Treatwell and car comparison site Carwow stopped recruiting altogether.
That lull was relatively short-lived. According to Tech Nation’s Jobs and Skills Report, the number of advertised roles increased by 36 per cent between June and August. The reason, the report says, is that “during these uncertain times, technology has been an enabler for many companies and communities”.
However Buchan, who has built teams for high-growth businesses including online sports betting company FanDuel and training management platform Administrate, says this is creating opportunities among small and medium-sized businesses which, by dint of their size, have less scope to offer internships or mentoring programmes.
While larger companies have brought non-essential projects to a halt – and scaled back their people power as a result – startups and scale-ups are still managing to attract investment and are using the cash to develop pandemic-friendly products.
When the UK entered its first lockdown and huge swathes of the population signed up to teleconferencing services such as Zoom, Chinese company AAC Technologies opened an Edinburgh-based research centre that will focus on improving the smartphone microphones that make those video calls possible. As locked-down citizens turned to technology to help fill their housebound days, videogame ad business AdInMo secured $500,000 of funding led by Techstart Ventures. It used some of the cash to bring on board deltaDNA co-founder Chris Wright as chief technology officer to further develop its unskippable, unblockable in-game advertising tool.
“There are going to be other things that will lead to opportunities for tech companies to deliver new products, because we really don’t know how long we’re going to be working like this,” Buchan says.
David Walker has been a beneficiary of the demand for senior talent. The 35-year-old senior data engineer left his role at data consultancy Wood Mackenzie in July to join the newly opened Edinburgh R&D hub of Danish online reviews platform Trustpilot. He started out as a developer 14 years ago and built a CV around roles at e-commerce platforms Greenfingers.com and Petplanet.co.uk, oil and gas company Weatherford and health sector data platform Craneware. His skillset was exactly what the startup outpost of an established player was looking for.
Walker did not think twice about moving from a permanent job in a longstanding business during the pandemic. In part this was because Trustpilot, whose Edinburgh base has been tasked with finding ways to weed out fake or paid-for reviews, received £1.8 million of Scottish Government funding ahead of its July launch. Though there might be mass unemployment caused by the pandemic, there are still opportunities for people with technical skills, he says.
“As an experienced engineer with a fairly broad skillset, there were lots of different roles out there,” he says.
That does not necessarily mean it is a candidate’s market, though. Mark Warburton, a director at London-based recruiter Pioneer Search, says that as so many contractors were laid off at the start of lockdown there are now huge numbers of highly skilled candidates chasing jobs that previously they wouldn’t have considered looking at, further squeezing what remains a tight jobs market in spite of pockets of investment.
“We recently had a contract opportunity paying a modest day rate and 1,000 people applied for it in 24 hours; those are experienced industry experts,” he says. “Right now for a contract, more than I’ve ever seen it in 20 years, it’s a buyer’s market.”
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