In new research conducted by Econsultancy, one of the key barriers to growth was identified as finding staff with suitable digital skills.

For the Digital Marketing: Organisational Structures and Resourcing report, we also asked participants in the survey about the specific skill areas that they perceived to be the most difficult to recruit for.

Web analytics and data topped the list, followed by social media, and content marketing, indicating that there is already a potential skills shortage in these areas.

When respondents were asked which digital marketing disciplines they anticipated would be the key areas of growth in the coming year, the top answers were social media, content marketing, and web analytics and data.

The fact that those areas of predicted growth in resourcing were the same as those that are already listed as being the most difficult to recruit for means one thing: a looming talent time bomb.

Big data and the talent crisis

In May this year McKinsey released a report (Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity) that brought sharp focus to this talent crisis in one key area: data.

The exponential growth in data it said,  driven by a growth in data-rich and real-time environments such as social and mobile, embedded internet (the so-called 'internet of things') and the increasing focus on analytics and owned media, will mean that the capability of analysing large data sets will become “a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation, and consumer surplus”.

The report concluded that there will be an inevitable global shortage of talent necessary for organisations to take advantage of this opportunity.

In the US alone, by 2018 it predicted a potential shortage of "140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5m managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions”.

Web design skills shortage

The Econsultancy research indicates that big data, whilst critical, is just one of a number of areas which are likely to witness looming talent shortages in the coming months and years.

Not far further down the list of areas that are challenging for companies to recruit for came web design and build. This was also notable in being identified as the most challenging area in which to retain staff.

And this doesn't look like a problem that is going away anytime soon. A campaign to boost the teaching of computer skills and coding is gathering momentum, supported by large technology companies including Google and Microsoft.

In addition, a report for the UK Government earlier this year (called Next Gen) argues for an urgent curriculum re-focus in the subject if the UK stood a chance of remaining globally competitive in high tech and computing based industries such as video gaming and visual effects.

Despite the contemporary relevance of the subject, the numbers of students that applied to UCAS to study computing at University fell from 16,500 in 2003 to just 13,600 last year, and the proportion of students looking to study computer science fell from 5% of overall applications to just 3%.

Moreover, the fall in applicants is doing nothing to help counter-act the enormous gender imbalance in the subject with the proportion of male applicants now standing at 87%.

But the problem goes back further than this - into schools. Over the last five years, there's been a 57% fall in the number of pupils taking ICT (Information and Communications) GCSE, and the number of students sitting computing A-level has fallen for eight successive years.

In his MacTaggart lecture given at the Edinburgh TV festival back in August, Eric Schmidt argued that the country that invented the computer was “throwing away our great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools.

According to Schmidt: "Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made." There is even a well-supported government e-petition that has been started in order to encourage the government to start teaching coding as a part of the curriculum in Year 5.

There is much to do, but given the wide and growing requirement for these skills it makes sense for organisations from many different sectors to support initiatives such as this.

As businesses increasingly adopt strategies that require depth of expertise in these increasingly in-demand areas, it also makes sense for them to take action to protect themselves from the inevitable challenges this will bring.

This includes creating working environments that will attract the best digital talent, and through effective career and succession planning. The ticking digital marketing talent time bomb is very real, and it's not going away.

Neil Perkin

Published 12 December, 2011 by Neil Perkin

Neil Perkin is the founder of Only Dead Fish, and a consultant and contributor to Econsultancy. You can read his blog, and follow him on Twitter.

14 more posts from this author

You might be interested in

Comments (6)

Save or Cancel

Hero Grigoraki

I don't agree that there's shortage of talent in the digital world - there is however some serious lack of understanding of what skills and experience are required for the jobs, which results in poor job specs that do not attract the right people and employers with unrealistic expectations.

I would also add that in certain areas, where indeed experience is rare, salaries need to be reflecting that requirement. There's experienced data analysts out there, but you can't attract them if you pay normal rates.

over 6 years ago


Benjamin Southworth

I think we're beginning to see the stress fractures of a much bigger seismic shift within "digital". (I'd use paradigmatic, but i've not had enough meetings this week..)

What I believe is happening is that the core fundamentals of digital are being forgotten and replaced with what I call "meta-work", we are seing highly specialised skills, such as planners, project managers, social media strategists, web analytics on so on becoming more and more stratified.

But is the right strategy anymore? My belief is that to really understand "digital" in all it's forms you need to have a solid base in the making of "things", this can take many forms. However, if you can't knock up a wordpress site with a custom theme, on a custom domain can you really call yourself "Digital"?

With this in mind, is it any wonder we're struggling to understand or even attract talented data-scientists who understand we metrics, funnel conversions, LTVAR and more?

The digital industry needs to double down on people who can code, because it's no longer the case that those can develop are socially backwards and can't be trusted in front of the clients.

Too many agencies are no longer inventive, creative or even keeping pace with many development houses because they are unaware of the options available to them, they struggle to understand APIs, programming languages and much more besides.

The time bomb is ticking and until we have agencies with at least equal numbers of digitally-skilled planners, PMs and AMs we will always be one step behind.

over 6 years ago



So my MA Social Media is worth something now ;)

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Neil,

Thanks for the post, interesting research findings there.

I've said for many years that there is a major gap in the digital/Internet industry between junior staff (who may be very bright but lack the commercial understanding and experience) and digital leaders (those who drive innovation, stay on top of latest thinking, know how to make effective decisions etc). It's hard to find switched on people for the middle layers, especially in specialist positions like website optimisation and SEO.

A good example is CRO and web analytics. There are many people who can do reporting, but few who can deliver the level of analysis that delivers real insight and helps senior managers make reasoned decisions for improvement. This is evident in organisations that still make changes to important webpages without doing any usability/UX analysis or testing. I think the industry has grown up quickly with a lot of marketing input but not so much data analysis.

For me apprenticeship is a good solution. Learning technology from a classroom, in isolation, just doesn't cut it. I did an MBA before I started work and wrote my dissertation on e-commerce - if I read it now, I'd laugh at how little I understood about how Internet technology was transforming business, though at the time I was convinced I knew it in depth as I read a lot of academic material.

You have to be immersed in a business environment to understand how to apply theory and knowledge to everyday challenges. I'm agnostic to qualifications - having a degree doesn't make you a good or bad candidate, it simply means you have the intelligence to get a degree. The challenge is to tap into talent streams and then train and educate the talent to be able to apply their skills to your business.

Some tech companies are teaming with educational establishments to help train students in digital disciplines, giving them access to a potentially rich talent pool. This type of partnership will be increasingly important.


over 6 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

This is an important post. You've helped highlight this crucial issue.

However, in my experience, it's sometimes a lack of imagination, rather than a lack of 'talent', that is the real problem with recruitment shortages.

Whilst it's the responsibility of governments and the education system to train young people, it's never been a good idea for businesses to wait for someone else to solve their recruitment problems.

Instead, organisations should be more proactive in sourcing the talent they need and investing in the future themselves. And a good place to start is by better nurturing their current workforce.

As someone involved in various vocational training programmes, it surprises me how many people on the courses are self-funded. Often because their employer was unwilling or unable to fund their training and development.

Even within several 'digital organisations' I've worked with, there is usually a lack of money for training and development. Few organisations I've come across have any decent, well thought out and structured career development plans for their staff.

Maybe this lack of investment in training and development is a reflection of the entrepreneurial and 'learn on the job' culture of digital? Or maybe it's part of the typical reluctance of UK organisations to spend money on training?

Whatever it is, before the digital industry points out the failings of others to invest in the future, it needs to be certain it has its own house in order first.

over 6 years ago


craig sullivan

I don't think it's a skills shortage.

I do think it's hard to recruit and weed out candidates that profess to have analytics or optimisation experience.

I also think it's hard for companies to distinguish between good candidates and 'report monkeys' - people who bring little critical thinking but generate reports, paperwork, data - not insights and genuinely curious, brave, silo breakers and thinkers. These candidates can run off reports but can't explain how or why data is formed, and how to instrument or improve it.

The situation is improving though - there is a growing band of cross silo analytics people, and they will really help understand and rewire stuff.

over 6 years ago

Save or Cancel

Enjoying this article?

Get more just like this, delivered to your inbox.

Keep up to date with the latest analysis, inspiration and learning from the Econsultancy blog with our free Digital Pulse newsletter. You will receive a hand-picked digest of the latest and greatest articles, as well as snippets of new market data, best practice guides and trends research.