The healthy future of the web industry maybe short-lived

Just three weeks ago I was stood on a stage in Vancouver, Canada. One of the first lines I said to the audience was, “Our industry is in one of the most exciting times of its life.” I meant every single word.

It was just 24 hours after I’d spoken that I was sat at a table chatting to a bunch of friends discussing the current state of employment within the web industry. The conversation was centred around discussing jobs which need filled within the web industry, we also discussed other ‘friends’ who were being taken off the market.

I still believe that our industry is in one of the most exciting times of its life. Never has so much been accomplished or created so quickly. If you thought the dotcom boom was incredible, what we’re seeing at the moment isn’t about the stupidity of people with money to invest, I’d like to think of it being more about the world waking up and realising that the web (Read: Web and Mobile sprinkled with the word ‘digital’) is more important than it has ever been before. Granted there are still some crazy individuals thinking sharing photos is worth $41million but you know, we’ll always get those.

I saw from a distance the dotcom boom come and go, I remember trying to make some money from online advertising whilst co-running nvmax.com with a friend and it was hard work, but it was also exciting. We were publishing content on a half daily basis and in comparison to todays world, people just didn’t consume content as they do now.

When the ‘recession’ hit, I immediately had a gut feeling that the digital world would feel the pain, that the world hadn’t changed and we’d be fighting for every scrap of left over meat in marketing budgets to do something special. I thought that VC’s and investors would tighten their belts and would be more overly cautious to potential investments. I’m happy to say I’ve seen the complete opposite, the web industry in the North East of England where I live has strengthened with only two companies that I know of which struggled. One was the result of outside intervention (they were in the middle of an international take-over) and the other seemed to just struggle in general. It’s fair to say that the companies that fought through and the companies who have started up since the recession have made me very proud.

This leads to my grave concern, that the healthy future of the web industry maybe shortlived. When a national industry goes through rapid boom it clambers for every resource it can. When an international and not specific to location industry goes through rapid boom it clambers for every resource from around the world. Us web folk don’t need to be in the same locality as our employers anymore and companies like 37Signals, WooThemes and envato have clearly entertained this idea and made great successes from it.

In the past, the UK Government has put initiatives in place when an industry might be short on staff resources and only recently I’ve seen it happen with Teaching and Trades (joiners, electricians etc). I can’t remember it ever happening with the digital/web industry even though its happening right under their very noses.

We’re currently going through a huge shortage of ‘talent’ in the web industry. Just so there is no confusion I’ll define what I mean by ‘talent’.

Talent: Active AND/OR Experienced members of the web/digital industry in the position or looking to move in to new roles AND students coming out of College / University with the experience needed for the industry.

I’ve talked about design education being broken within the UK before, and still believe it is. I’ve seen first hand the courses which colleges and universities are pushing to teach new students and how they’re going about doing it. On top of that, budget cuts in education is killing the education system in general. Web Design/Development courses in general are low in numbers across the board and the experience that the students are gaining before they look for employment isn’t enough for the jumping straight in at the deep end.

Looking for experienced developers (back and front-end) in todays industry is like trying to find a rocking-horses shit, you’re not going to find it. And for those companies looking for experienced designers to lead teams you’re going to be in that bracket as well.

The funded startup companies are currently buying any talent on the market they can find, and when you see facebook paying exorbanant amounts for summer interns of $5k per month plus $1200 for ‘living subsistence’, not many ‘normal’ companies are able to compete. That’s just looking at the interns. If we look at the more experienced members of the industry, in the US, they’re looking, according to salary.com to be on between $40’000 and $90’000 depending on location and experience. That range is 30-40% more than the industry in the UK. We simply don’t have enough bodies on the ground to cover the holes.

To give you an example. I was asked a couple of months ago if I knew of anyone looking for a new job. The roles were varied including UX/UI designers, Front-end & Back-end developers. The first question I had was if the company looking to employ had any money. The question raised an eye-brow, the next statement shocked the person I was talking to. “You’re going to have to buy people…” By that, I meant a higher salary bracket and golden handshake with an amazing benefits and culture type deal is going to be one of the only ways for people in our industry to be swayed to move to a different place of work. I’ve not spoken to anyone over the past year in our industry who is not enjoying what they’re doing so why should they move right..?

The shortage above isn’t helped either by the head-hunting which has started (I don’t mind a bit of head-hunting as long as its done fairly) but it just shows how short on the ground we are, even in the North East of England, it’s unheard of to be happening on such a large scale. I’ve spoken to several people who have ‘hitlists’ of names who they’re going to approach and that’s __if__ they can be caught before moving to another company.

The rest of the world drops us in to an I.T bracket, and I.T job listings have increased by 47% over the last year… most recruiters expect poaching and aggressive hiring strategies to only increase over the next 12 months. When recruiters for tech companies start jumping from one big ship to another that’s a true sign of all kinds of crazy gunna happen. Remember when digg made quite a few redundancies? Other tech companies were phoning personal cell numbers to get them to join their companies, there is HUGE demand for talented people.

If things carry on the way they’re headed, the web industry is going to be caught short with a lack of manpower to carry on the successes of the past 14-15 years. We’ve come so far and have accomplished too much to be restricted by something which can be fixed. I want to see our industry flourish like it has in the past couple of years and well into the future yet I’m also very aware this might not be the case if we don’t get things under control. We need to find a way to fill the gaps and not just by plugging holes but doing things properly, getting people in to the industry quicker because they WANT to do it. We require passionate people to have a level of understanding so they can be dropped in at the deep end and swim. We SHOULD be pushing Colleges and Universities in the right direction, we SHOULD be getting involved with pushing for the right curriculum to be taught, we SHOULD be accepting placements in to the industry sooner so they can get a degree of understanding of what we do. We are in an exciting time and I want to share it with plenty of others, we’re becoming so much more professional than we ever have been.

I want our industry to remain healthy for the right reasons.

What do you think?

17 thoughts on “The healthy future of the web industry maybe short-lived”

  1. Gavin,

    You’re absolutely right. The talent acquisitions and poaching by the ‘Valley Mindset’ show the rise of what’s required to maintain those with the talent. at first it was very much within the zipcodes of the valley, but now its clearly ink spotting outwards around the world.

    The expectations of those in the design trade, reading about it, will soon expect the same industry geographically to them to step up and pay what their brethren are getting across the pond and elsewhere.

    Yet cost of living is a critical component. Also the employment, health and well-being laws are huge in, say, California. The idea of what constitutes an employee there versus, says, in England, is way different legally.

    An iOS engineer with two commercial apps under their belt in San Francisco can consider a new job salary of 90-120k. Wealth is inflated over there. The same job in Atlanta is probably 20-30% less. Cross the pond and its another 20-30% less. Cost of living and externalities like Government, Legal and Environment all increase or decrease salary.

    The question is what’s fair. The dichotomy of the matter at hand is above all this excuse of living standards, talent demand has no geographical boundaries, and relative expense to require talent than absolute expense based on geographical region needs to be fixed. It’s broken.

  2. I work at a University in Wales and I do agree to a certain extent but the situation isn’t going to get any better as universities rely on the government funding thats currently being cut. My particular institution has culled many design courses despite having a rich history of producing creative talent in the arts and television industries. They have chosen to focus more on its business courses and recruiting students from abroad. Things have changed regardless of what industry people work in. This is the state of the UK, as universities bump up tuition fees to £9000 you are already putting off students from going to university no matter what they want to study.

    Even if they do get the students more often than not the lecturers are not qualified enough to teach them. I went to university and the lecturers I had were useless, didn’t have a clue. I’ve been a website designer for nearly 8-9 years and my degree taught me nothing, which is why I think design companies taking on interns/apprenticeships, like Mark Boulton Design did, is the way forward.

    Not only this but I also think an independent (industry run) training school would be brilliant to have. If I were given the opportunity to apply for an accredited illustration course (that would run for 1 year) taught by Elliot Jay Stocks or if I had the chance to apply for a UX course taught by Andy Budd or if I had the chance to apply for a HTML and CSS course taught by Andy Clarke, I would snap your bloody hand off. It could be delivered at much cheaper costs to what universities charge (which isn’t hard) and with those names on board it could easily partner up with local businesses in the UK to get the students in work straight away. That way the people who go on about the lack of talent currently in the web industry can control the standard of students that get pushed out to the industry. We are all desperate to see the high standards continue but only a few of us have the power to actually influence and change it.

    1. Evan, thank you. I understand completely. I’ve also had discussions with people who have thought an independent (industry run) training school would be better for those exact reasons. The last line in your comment expresses my deep feelings whole-heartedly.

    2. Funny that, seems there are a few of us all having the same thoughts. Teaching the talent ourselves one way or another :)

      We offer student placements at Offroadcode even though we are tiny. I’m shocked at the lack of knowledge the students have though. We sifted through quite a few to get ours, some didn’t have a clue. There are massive gaps in ability which makes you ask what they really are being taught and how relevant it is.

      These gaps though could quickly get patched if the right people can get their hands on them at the right time. I’ve tried getting our local University involved (Huddersfield University) but it falls on deaf ears or does not get in the right hands.

      We are active in the Umbraco CMS community which has a board talent pool involved with it (HTML, Javascript, Mobile, .net, etc.) and have discussed the idea of hosting summer camps or just full blown courses both for students and (would be) professionals. Short 2-4 week stints about some of the core tech and ideas we use day to day. Focused enough to allow you to get into the meat of them with workshops to let you play and learn. To do it well though we need the right talent (note that does not mean big or famous) to stand up in front of them or we will do no better than the over worked rusty University lecturers, you have to be engaging, active in the community, clear in what you say/teach and keen as mustard.

      Something to ponder on some more, maybe we could start looking into how it might/could be done?

      Great write up by the way.

  3. Evan,

    Great point. What this means is Universities can’t be treated the same. What Universities are becoming the best for designers? When one or two universities step up to the plate and play ball, they’ll skyrocket to the top. Within a few years, you’ll have talent buyers showing up in buses to hire that design talent.

    And keep in mind, DESIGN isn’t part of the arts. It’s part of CS. Design is an ethos are transcends graphical to informational. For instance, I just found out Newcastle University runs an iOS course, and it seems the work coming out of it is good quality.

    The University that does it first to market, will get the industry lining up outside its doors.

  4. I completely agree – there is a huge opportunity to offer top quality courses right across the technology spectrum – design, development, ux etc. From personal experience I know that universities are not preparing people for the IT industry as effectively as they could. Even without the presence of the big names mentioned by Evan I believe there is a gap for privately run courses that are aimed at university age students. The biggest obstacle is convincing potential students that this is a better route than university credentialism. I think you would have had a hard job convincing an 18 year old me that university wasn’t the way to go. Unfortunately the universities have things locked up in terms of perception and prestige which is only reinforced by the lazy hiring practices of many companies. Hopefully this will change over time – I think it has to if we as an industry are going to fill the talent gaps that just seem to be getting wider.

  5. Gavin, again I agree with your comments :) For those that don’t know me I run a web design course at a local college. My numbers are REALLY low compared to other courses we provide but yet a week doesn’t go by where someone is asking for a web design graduate to employ. I’ve even got to the point where students from 1st year are getting jobs in agencies due to the lack of supply.

    I’ve got some great talented students and (I like to think!) I’m teaching them right and preparing them for industry, under the umbrella of a structured qualification, but I just don’t have enough interest in the course, particularly with young people.

    Other courses will recruit much better, but the students quickly become part of the unemployed graduate pool on completion of the courses. Institutions are not particularly interested if graduates are good/get employed, only perhaps as a PR opportunity, just numbers on courses. So unfortunately courses like mine will end up being cut due to lack of interest.

    I’ve done extra workshops/teaching with under 18’s to try and spark interest and there is still virtually no interest in the web industry, instead preferences seems to be with more generic or ‘cool’ sounding subjects such as photography or games design.

    I believe there needs to be less focus on, “are the courses right?”, because there are some great ways of being educated in this industry, and more thought to encouragement for the next generations to get interested in our industry.

  6. I’m in Minnesota and know of a very large company that is looking to do a great deal of mobile-related development. A manager told me that she has ‘given up’ lookiong for iOS develoeprs in the Twin Citites area because ‘there aren’t any’.

    Instead the company plans on training 30+ people in-house and ‘incenting’ them to stay with the company

  7. I’m a web developer in the silicon valley, and I agree to an extent; schools aren’t providing quit the right education for graduates to be successful in the industry, although that’s why senior people would be more valued.

    There’s also the fact that for a few years, computer science & related disciplines just weren’t that popular. There wasn’t anything to hype the majors (the last time they were popular was the late 90’s/early 2000’s), so it’s kind of expected that talent will lag behind demand for a few years. As a result, it’s become kind of a musical chairs game: recruiters are luring away the same set of people already with jobs to another job.

    It’s a hot field to be a part of, to be sure, but I wouldn’t say it’s “healthy” right now either, not when employer expectations and (potential) employee skillsets are so misaligned. Job churn and perpetually open recs are a thing to avoid.

  8. Universities can, and should, be doing more to ensure that this skills gap is addressed, delivering well-qualified graduates who have a sound understanding of all the aspects of our industry. As you rightly point out, our industry is growing at a relentless rate and this rate of growth looks set to continue for some time to come. There’s a pressing need to address this skills shortage, urgently.

    We have a responsibility as educators to deliver skilled, industry ready practitioners who are not only fluent with fundamental web standards, but equally importantly, are knowledgeable about design and able to articulate themselves clearly and intelligently.

    The challenge to comprehensively cover all these bases is considerable, but not insurmountable.

    The sad reality, however, is that all too often, courses on offer are outdated and, if anything, do more harm than good to the industry. As a result, there’s a tendency to focus on the negatives: universities are outdated; degrees are worthless; graduates know nothing… Whilst this is certainly true in some cases, I don’t believe it’s true in all cases.

    Contrary to what’s the popular meme, there are pockets of really fantastic educators out there and, if we’re to improve the state of web design education, we need to highlight these successes.

    Off the top of my head I can think of a number of passionate and committed lecturers working in education to strive to deliver world class graduates: Liz Danzico is doing fantastic work with her MFA Interaction Design at SVA, New York; Richard Eskins, at Manchester Metropolitan University, has been running ‘Web Teaching Day’ for two years now, in an effort to share examples of best practice; and Libby Gardiner is doing great things at Newcastle College.

    All of these passionate and talented individuals have chosen to apply their energies to raising the game in the field of web design education. All have committed above and beyond the nine-to-five of their day jobs, because they believe – that when it’s done correctly – education can change not just an individual, but the community that that individual joins.

    I believe we could do so much more if we focused on excellence and challenged those not delivering the right calibre of graduates to raise their game. If we rewarded excellence, if we celebrated it, then others might rise to the challenge. Nothing beats a bit of healthy competition to raise standards.

    Correct me if I’m wrong (and I hope I am wrong), but I’ve seen no categories for web design education in any of the major awards our industry offers. We have countless categories for designers, for developers, for agencies, and for bloggers. None for educators. I believe this is a huge missed opportunity.

    There’s an age old adage: Those who can do; those who can’t teach. Bullshit. Anyone who blithely delivers that line clearly has absolutely no idea of the complexities of teaching and how difficult it is to find people who have the mix of skills to teach effectively.

    Education is a challenge.

    A great educator – for our industry – needs to have a considerable grasp of an ever-evolving technical landscape, they need to know what’s current, and they need to be able to articulate that in a way that’s clearly graspable. That, however, isn’t enough. They also need to inspire. You can have all the technical knowledge in the world, but if you can’t deliver it in a manner that inspires students, that knowledge will fall on deaf ears. A great educator needs to ignite passion in young, creative minds, they need to light a spark, and to challenge. Yet, even that’s not enough. They also need to support and to nurture, to listen.

    This mix of skills is extremely difficult to come by, but it’s one we as an industry need to celebrate and develop.

    If we are to address the skills shortage we face as an industry, we need to start celebrating the excellence in web design education that exists. The individuals mentioned above and the courses that they run should be highlighted as a beacon to others.

    Perhaps it’s time that the countless web design awards added a new category, ‘Educator of the Year’. That might go some way towards highlighting best practice and proving that our subject can be taught effectively and we can deliver world class practitioners to address the skills shortage we face.

  9. It’s (unfortunately) a little different in Holland from what I can tell. While the business definately seems to be booming at the moment, the salaries and talent-points you bring up appear to be a little different here.

    Webdesign companies (for example) tend to think that webdesigners are exactly the same as normal designers. They tend to hire ány designer that make good designs, and for a normal income (instead of a slightly/lot higher income).

    Other than that, I personally think that UI/webdesign is a far more interesting job than “paper” design because although there are new and different restrictions, you have a lot more freedom designing something when it comes to size. There’s not really a restricted size like an “A4″ or anything, and even the screen resolution depends on the target you’re designing for :) Very exciting stuff if you ask me :)

  10. I can’t comment on the design side but on the development side it is certainly true that the local “web development” graduates are unemployable. They have no experience of industry standard tools such as source control or using an IDE, they don’t understand OOP, and they don’t seem to write re-usable code. I’m working to advise one local university but it takes time to change things and the academics often haven’t heard of things that I consider standard!

    I’m a PHP specialist and I know of at least two large employers here in the UK that have had plans to create “finishing schools” for graduates to fill in the missing skills they need for industry. Especially considering the rising costs of studying, I find it hard to understand how it is acceptable to provide such little value on the courses on offer!

    I will keep on giving the best advice I can in any place I can be heard … and I’m encouraged to see so many other people on this thread saying the same. Maybe things *can* change!

  11. This is absolutely not what we’re seeing. Whilst it is true that finding skilled developers is very hard, we have experienced a huge slow down in work. We are a seriously hard core web development company with very skilled staff, and we’ve seen fairly regular streams of $10k projects almost completely drop off to nothing. We now have to buy in leads, and the majority expect things like RightMove cloned for $2k, or other kinds of very complex sites on the kind of budget that can only fund creating and implementing a modest nicely designed site. Just yesterday a prospect was shocked they could not get a CMS conversion for $200. We’ve tried just about every kind of promotional activity, including resorting to cold calling every established business in the city – absolutely nobody is building new web sites, and nobody has the budgets. We also seek work internationally, same problem. We’ve done our best to build relationships with other people in the industry, and we have many from past work we have done and other contacts, but nobody knows anyone that is buying. I know it may seem like perhaps we are incompetent, but that is the furthest thing from the truth, we’ve got an incredibly enthusiastic open source community, a very positively reviewed product (which we don’t tie ourselves to necessarily), and very satisfied customers. But, nobody is buying, or if they are, they don’t have the budgets. We’ve seen a number of local companies go out of business, have to be taken over, or we know are making losses. We’ve seen prices competitors charge dropping very low, for them just trying to do whatever they can to win work and stay in business. We’ve seen government tenders answered by 150 suppliers trying to get the work, and generally government work has dropped off a cliff. Essentially, we’ve seen every single kind of client and tier in the industry, except the real barrel scraping, or the necessary bluechip work held by large agencies, collapse.

    1. I second Chris’ comments.

      The biggest problem from my perspective is not talent, education, or lack of these. The problem I face on a daily basis is clients expecting massive projects at a knock-down price.

      Of course, we have to be competitive and competition is healthy, but freelancers from countries with significantly lower living costs are delivering (usually technically inferior) solutions at prices we can’t get near.

      This isn’t a sob story – I have excellent clients that appreciate craftsmanship, ability and experience, and are willing to pay for it. Unfortunately these clients are few and far between, which I *really* wish wasn’t the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>