Could Competency Frameworks Help Address the Digital Infrastructure Industry’s Workforce Challenges? By Sarah Parks, Director of Marketing and Communications, CNet Training

  • Wednesday, 3rd July 2024 Posted 2 weeks ago in by Phil Alsop

Competence is a commonly used word that can mean different things to different people. Most frequently understood as someone’s ability to carry out a task effectively, more in-depth definitions extend this to express an adequate combination of skills, knowledge and experience – perhaps even the personal aptitude – to carry out a given task. 

No matter the intricacies of the definition, general agreement is that competence describes what most hope to achieve as a minimum in their day-to-day lives and it’s undoubtedly high on the list of requirements when filling vacancies in the mission critical workforce. Recent Uptime Institute reports indicate, however, that as many as 50% of data centre owners and operators are struggling to find suitably qualified staff. So why is competence so hard to come by?

The first obstacle is the overall lack of visibility of the industry in wider society, an issue that has been discussed time and time again over many years. In our digitally reliant world that hosts an ever-increasing number of connected devices per household (2023 research found an average of 12 or 17 connected devices per household in Europe and the US respectively – and predictions of 24 billion worldwide by 2050), it’s difficult to believe that still so many people lack understanding of how these devices work, or more importantly, where their data is actually being stored. This unfamiliarity means candidates who may possess the ideal aptitude to make up the industry’s skills gap could be oblivious to the opportunities that are available – or might be put off by a misunderstanding that the industry is ‘too technical’ for them.

The flipside of this obstacle – and another challenge in itself – is a widespread reluctance across the industry to fill job openings from ‘outside’. Where a job advert specifies industry experience as essential, how can industry newbies expect to get a foot in the door? With the majority of companies demanding new hires come with industry knowledge and/or prior experience, this requirement is proving a major blockage to attracting new, competent entrants to the industry, and is severely limiting potential appointments to a diminishing pool.

If you do conquer these hurdles, you face the task of assessing competence quickly and accurately enough to be able to make an informed recruitment decision whether the individual is right for the role (or indeed, for candidates to be able to evidence it quickly enough to be able to showcase their talents). Do you use ‘standard’ interview questions, require applicants to complete a practical task or presentation, or rely on gut instinct – a feeling – to select the person best suited to the role? 

This focus on competency is not a new one. In 1960, the “Management of Training Programs” textbook introduced the concept of the four stages of competence, which were further honed in a 1969 article published by management trainer Martin Broadwell. Naming them “the four levels of teaching”, Broadwell segmented the stages that learners go through when acquiring new skills into four categories: unconscious incompetence (lacks ability and is unaware of the usefulness of having it), conscious incompetence (awareness of the value of the ability and that they do not possess it), conscious competence (ability to complete the task with heavy conscious effort), and unconscious competence (in-depth ability to complete a task, such that it becomes ‘second nature’).

Many have suggested furthering this hierarchy with a fifth stage, proposing names that range from chosen conscious competence to complacency, or even enlightenment. Though these four stages were introduced as a hierarchy, it’s now recognised that competency is not a linear journey, with one stage leading on to the next until you reach a pinnacle. It is possible (and expected) to flit between stages as your skills and experience grow or – on the reverse – diminish, as learning is forgotten and competence declines.

Keeping this hierarchy of competence in mind while we consider the industry’s workforce challenges, we gain a valuable insight, not only into the way people acquire skills and knowledge, but also how they fare over time. Acquiring a deep understanding of the way people learn and retain knowledge is beneficial in assessing competence. It can provide useful benchmarks by which to determine the level of education required to attain the expected skill level for a role. Using ongoing assessment tools that are based around a hierarchy of competence (such as Broadwell’s) enables leaders to easily identify skills and knowledge gaps across teams (or in prospective candidates when used during the recruitment process) and pinpoint exactly the measures that are required to bring the individuals to a competent standard.

Beyond the digital infrastructure industry, frameworks for competency are fairly commonplace, constructed to help organisations understand the specific value-based behaviours, skill and knowledge requirements for each role in the business. Competency frameworks clearly outline expectations, enabling a fair opportunity for everyone to be assessed on a level playing field, regardless of background, age, gender, race, etc., and therefore encouraging diversity. They benefit individuals and managers by enabling transparent benchmarking which can help both parties identify opportunities for personal growth, and the clarity they provide empowers managers to place value on skills rather than qualifications.

To reap the highest rewards, competency frameworks can be tailored to reflect not only the needs of a role, but also the organisation it sits within. By using a customised approach, the framework can be adapted to include softer, behavioural skills, as well as the more technical requirements, that fit the company’s unique values, ethos, goals and ambitions. Using the framework, businesses can identify any skills that they’re missing across teams, and armed with this knowledge, leaders can implement skills improvement activities such as further learning, or mentoring, or recruit the people they need to meet business goals, as well as carry out a role, consequently improving business performance overall.

So, could the implementation of competency frameworks into common roles across the digital infrastructure industry help empower companies to open their eyes to the talent that lies beyond the walls of the industry and fill their vacancies with competent candidates, regardless of their background, academic achievements or prior experience? 

No single change is going to fill the cracks that are forming in the industry, but there are some steps that are relatively easy to implement and could have a ripple effect across the sector. Establishing clarity of requirements for individual jobs roles, applying these frameworks to recruitment processes, and assessing skills and knowledge levels to maintain competency on a continuing basis, can only help us along the path to finding what we are looking for; competent individuals with the right mix of behaviours, skills and knowledge to fulfil the demands of our digital workforce, for today and the future.

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