Closing the blockchain skills gap

Ken Weber, Head of Social Impact, Ripple, assesses the blockchain skills gap and the role of academia, governments and private organisations in helping to address it

In 2018, a study of marketers and advertising executives found that “blockchain” was the most overrated – and possibly the most overused – technology buzzword of the year.

Was this assessment correct?

Since its elevation into the mainstream with other emerging technologies such as cryptocurrencies, AI, machine learning and the IoT, leaders and industry experts have found it challenging to understand its capabilities. Unlike the other technologies, blockchain – while revolutionary – has always carried an air of uncertainty and mystery, and its use-cases are still being determined.

However, despite blockchain being an emerging technology, the buzz is real and the number of private and public organisations exploring the potential use of the technology is growing exponentially. In fact, a new report from job site Hired suggests there’s been a 517% increase in demand for software engineers with blockchain development skills in the past year.

But the issue is that demand is far outweighing supply. Just 11% of UK businesses expect to employ an adequate number of technology professionals this year, and the number of companies that can recruit the right blockchain professionals is even lower.

A large part of the issue is that companies need two types of blockchain professionals. Firstly, they need engineers who possess a deep understanding of the technologies and can implement changes immediately. Secondly, they need to fill non-technical roles with senior employees who can make decisions involving the application of blockchain to business objectives. To do this, however, these employees need a working knowledge of the technology.

The industry has a well-documented, yet growing skills gap that must be fixed. But how?

The current state of the market

Education and training must be the driving factor behind addressing staff shortages and the skills gap in blockchain-based roles. However, the pace of change in technology – and the ascension of blockchain – has meant there is a lag between the skills required today by forward-thinking companies and how quickly the educational system can educate the next generation of blockchain talent.

Currently, over 40% of the world’s top 50 universities already offer at least one class on blockchain or crypto assets. But this is tied to different disciplines such as law, engineering, mathematics and business administration. To truly close the skills gap, universities around the world must expand these programmes to offer blockchain and crypto-asset training courses that directly relate to roles in industry.

Moreover, unlike traditional financial services, there is no central hub for blockchain solutions. Those employed to deliver blockchain programmes could be located anywhere in the world, so education needs to be deliverable where the participants choose to live and learn, as a set curriculum under a job-now-job-tomorrow syllabus. Embracing a globalised delivery of vocational education and training would ensure that training standards continue to be met while democratising access to skill development.

The need for collaboration between industry and academia

According to a recent survey by Bloomberg and Workday, just 38% of businesses are working with their academic counterparts to shape future technology curriculums. This shows that organisations are not making cross-sector collaboration a priority which only serves to contribute to the skills gap as a result.

To combat the gap, there needs to be an increased awareness of how blockchain can be used and its overall impact on society. A strong partnership between industry and academia, for example, could help the broader audience better understand the nature and applications for blockchain; be it through hosting joint roundtables, events or partnering on new product announcements. Only by being aware of the transformative impact emerging technologies like blockchain can have across industries will the real-life applications match the excitement already displayed in the market.

Some of the most interesting work currently happening in these partnerships can be found at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Bombay with Professor R.K. Shyamasundar. The professor is helping to prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs for the uses of blockchain through industry-collaboration. With his students, he has been hosting workshops with other academic institutions, industry and government to provide consultancy and advice on blockchain projects. One outcome of these workshops has been his work with the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) in using the Land Management Protocol which has been developed by IIT Bombay.

Undoubtedly, by working together to increase understanding of blockchain and developing formal processes and a robust curriculum, industry and academia can close the skills gap and reap the rewards of previously untapped talent.

Cross-sector R&D will underpin blockchain innovation and expand the skills pool of existing tech talent

While blockchain innovation is underway, it’s important to remember that academia has always helped push forward advances in technologies; from the microprocessor to the Internet, to AI, machine learning and beyond.

By working together to conduct cross-sector research, students and faculty are given the opportunity to be major contributors to building a robust blockchain ecosystem. Ultimately, joint research will enable students to develop and hone their own blockchain skills in preparation for use in a real-world business environment.

For example, the University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI) by Ripple launched to support the development of curricula and courses for students pursuing work in blockchain, cryptocurrency, digital payments and related topics. In its first academic year alone, UBRI supported over 100 research projects for more than 30 universities across the globe to accelerate innovation and unlock new use-cases in blockchain. The initiative also aims at further developing the skills needed for the next generation of business leaders to apply these technologies in practice.

Evening out supply and demand

Blockchain has the potential to completely transform the financial services industry, amongst others, and so the demand for talent must be met. Its recognition as the most overrated buzzword of 2018 should be used as a reminder of the technology’s potential and the opportunity that lies ahead for both the industry and academia should the gap be closed.

However, to do this, there must be a renewed focus on education and training, expanding the number of blockchain and crypto courses available in global universities, and developing a set, standardised curriculum.

Moreover, industry and academia must be prepared to work together to raise awareness of how blockchain can impact society by thus providing opportunities for new talent to learn the skills to implement them. This is how supply and demand is once again evened out, and the skills gap is no longer an issue. 

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