Professional development

How big is the skills gap, really?

Susan Morrow
January 6, 2020 by
Susan Morrow


No doubt you will have noticed, in the past few years, that voices are being raised about something called the “skills gap.” The discussion is not just happening in the U.S. Countries like the UK and India have set government-industry partnership motions in place to try and address this. One such project is from the World Economic Forum, which has developed an initiative called “Closing the Skills Gap.”

But is it real? Is there an actual skills gap? It can’t be for lack of humans to do jobs — the world population is around 7.8 billion as of December 2019. And it can’t be for lack of education, either. Around 1.8% of the U.S. population has a Ph.D., and almost 21% have a bachelor's degree. As a SHRM report pointed out, in the U.S., “7 million jobs were open in December 2018, but only 6.3 million unemployed ... “

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However, we then see concerning statistics about the skills gap — such as those from a study by CompTIA, showing that 47% of SMBs see the skills gap growing. In terms of IT security skills specifically, the situation only ever seems to get worse. (ISC)2 recently reported that, globally, the workforce has to grow 145% to meet the skills gap in IT security jobs.

There is a lot of conjecture and surveys looking at the skills gap in IT and security as well as other areas of industry, In this article, I’ll drill down into those studies and see what the situation actually looks like.

What is a skills gap?

Before starting, I’ll set out what we mean by a skills gap.

The skills gap is not unique to the tech or information security industry. As we have seen, a skills gap has been identified by multiple entities, including the WEF and CompTIA. This lack of skills seems to be pervasive and crosses industrial boundaries.

A skills gap occurs when the skills required to perform a job are not met by the existing workforce. This can happen when the education and training systems do not reflect changes in business processes, technological changes and demographic adjustments. As a result, we have a surplus of jobs that no one is completely qualified to perform.

Why is this? Well, one thing driving the skills gap is that the industry has been going through major changes, with digital transformation being the watchword of the 2010s. New technologies create new processes. In the 2020s, this looks like a case of not having the right people to take real advantage of this technological revolution.

This brings us to the question: do we need a revolution in skills as well as in industry?

A review of the findings on the skills gap

Many skilled people are looking into the skills gap. Rather than second-guessing the situation, I’ll take a look at the survey results from key organizations. We can use this data to develop a view on the impact of the skills gap.


CompTIA took a general look at the cross-industry sector/department skills gap. The report found that the skills gap affected all business functions to varying degrees. Key findings from the report (which surveyed 600 U.S. professionals) include:

  • 46% of organizations report an increasing skills gap
  • 74% of companies place technology as a “primary factor in reaching business objectives”
  • The three main areas impacted by the skills gap are:
    • Productivity 
    • Customer service and engagement
    • Profit and sales

Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

A 2019 survey carried out by analysts at SHRM, across industry sectors throughout the U.S. found the following: 

  • 83% of survey respondents had difficulty in recruiting a skilled candidate in the previous 12 months
  • Competition for skilled employees that are available plays a major role in recruitment issues
  • Lack of technical skills and experience are also key issues in bridging the skills gap

Of the top skills missing from recruiters’ wish lists were:

  • Trade skills
  •  Data analysis
  • Science/engineering

Problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking were the top soft skills missing from a candidate’s portfolio.

The conclusion that SHRM comes to is that industry needs support to build talent pools from the education sector.

World Economic Forum (WEF)

The WEF recognizes a major skills gap throughout the world. To try and reduce the impact on industry, the WEF has created an initiative called “Closing the Skills Gap project” to bring government, civil society, business and the education and training sectors together under one umbrella to resolve the issues. The project recognizes the changing skills landscape. It will work to “skill, reskill and upskill” around 10 million people by 2020.

WEF believes that if we are to reduce the skills gap, an additional $11.5 trillion has to be added to the global GDP by 2028. The WEF is creating a series of accelerators to offer key incentives such as innovative skill-building models and “skills anticipation” for future work.

The WEF’s Future of Jobs report (2018) found that by 2022, 54% of all employees will require significant reskilling and upskilling.

(ISC)2 and the cybersecurity skills gap

Published in November 2019, the (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study looked specifically at cybersecurity staffing in 11 major world economies, including the U.S. Using survey results, the researchers were able to deduce:

  • Around 65% of organizations felt there was a shortfall of skilled cybersecurity staff 
  • The main worry was a lack of skilled and experienced cybersecurity personnel 
  • One interesting finding was a lack of standard terminology in the industry, which was stifling communication — almost a third of companies expressed a concern about this
  • 24% of respondents identified a lack of budget as an issue

(ISC)2 concludes that to address the skills gap, organizations must:

  • Recruit talented men and women into the field
  • Attract experts from outside the organization
  • Train and develop existing team members

Can we close the skills gap?

Industry 4.0, with the promise of automation, may help to alleviate the skills gap. On the one hand, Robotic Automated Process (RPA) technology has been developed to take on the most manual of tasks. Yet, we are being told that we need people to upskill to take on jobs that technology has created. The two are, of course, mutually exclusive. While McKinsey has said that 45% of paid jobs can be replaced by automation technologies, handing over those jobs to the robots is only really feasible for an individual if they have the skills to move onto pastures greener.

The skills gap certainly seems to exist and needs to be urgently addressed. Industry experts and analysts concur. They also agree that this is a major issue moving into the 2020s. How to actually close the gap seems to be dependent on taking existing workers and giving them the skills to do the jobs needed in Industry 4.0; this includes the skills to handle the increasing cyberattack surface that a hyperconnected industrial landscape creates.

In the area of IT security, the skills gap can be directly related to the increase in cybersecurity threats. 2019 was another year where data breaches hit record levels. Other cybercrimes such as DDoS continue unabated, with Europol placing DDoS attacks as second only to ransomware and phishing in the biggest cyberthreats of 2019.

The skills gap should be seen as an opportunity for individuals and also for companies too. The workforce is there; people just need to be shown the value of these new tasks and know that opportunities exist.

Examples of bridging the skills gap around the world

How to achieve this will need a movement, but many countries are taking the skills gap very seriously. 

Singapore has the “Skills Future” initiative. This is a national program offering people many ways to train for skilled jobs, this includes training programs and large-scale MOOCs.

Ireland offers a government-driven educational initiative, Springboard, that offers free part-time conversion courses, including certificates through to degrees.

The UK has the Tech Partnership, which is a collective of universities and businesses offering training and educational qualifications for skilled work.

The U.S. offers a number of programs to help skill-up workers. For example, ReadySC and Apprenticeship Carolina support apprentices and businesses alike to meet the skills needed by industry across the state.

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  1. Closing the Skills Gap, World Economic Forum
  2. Education in the United States of America, WENR
  3. The Skills Gap 2019, SHRM
  4. ISC2 Finds the Cybersecurity Workforce Needs to Grow 145% to Close Skills Gap and Better Defend Organizations Worldwide, (ISC)2
  5. Assessing the IT Skills Gap, CompTIA
  6. Closing the Skills Gap Accelerators, Samploon
  7. Strategies for Building and Growing Strong Cybersecurity Teams, (ISC)2
  8. Four fundamentals of workplace automation, McKinsey Digital
  9. Cybercrime is becoming bolder with data at the centre of the crime scene, Europol
Susan Morrow
Susan Morrow

Susan Morrow is a cybersecurity and digital identity expert with over 20 years of experience. Before moving into the tech sector, she was an analytical chemist working in environmental and pharmaceutical analysis. Currently, Susan is Head of R&D at UK-based Avoco Secure.

Susan’s expertise includes usability, accessibility and data privacy within a consumer digital transaction context. She was named a 2020 Most Influential Women in UK Tech by Computer Weekly and shortlisted by WeAreTechWomen as a Top 100 Women in Tech. Susan is on the advisory board of Surfshark and Think Digital Partners, and regularly writes on identity and security for CSO Online and Infosec Resources. Her mantra is to ensure human beings control technology, not the other way around.