Top 5 This Week

Related Posts

A new approach to the skills shortage is needed | Opinion

The idea of an industry-led body with a mandate to come up with solutions to skills shortages in the UK, as presented in this week’s Skillfull report, is self-evidently a good one.

Difficulties in finding staff with the specific, high-level skillsets involved in game development have dogged the industry for decades, and while there have been quite a few industry initiatives aimed at improving the situation over the years, the underlying problems remain frustratingly intractable.

A body designed to work on these issues with the full backing of a wide swathe of the industry – preferably also including representation from the education sector and the government – might have a better chance of coming up with lasting solutions rather than band-aids.

Yet there’s very clearly an elephant in the room, as the report’s lead author Gina Jackson acknowledged when she presented it at the Games Impact Summit – it’s tricky to talk about a skills shortage after a year in which the industry globally has laid off thousands upon thousands of staff.

The reasons for those layoffs essentially boil down to the industry cutting its losses on risky and speculative business expansion in the face of rising interest rates and tighter restrictions on financing, but the specifics of corporate finance are of little relevance in evaluating the damage done to the industry’s skilled labour pool by these redundancies.

That damage comes from two directions. Firstly, there is the fact that at least some portion of the skilled staff laid off by companies over the past year will not circulate back into the games industry. Many people’s careers in the games industry involve a certain tension between their desire to work on video games, and the fact that their skillset is also in demand in other, often higher-paying, industries.

The desire to work on games is a huge motivator, and the industry is a constant beneficiary of that passion; a great many people work on games because they love doing it, even though they could earn more applying their skills elsewhere.

Huge rounds of layoffs and the inherent instability to which they speak is a combo breaker for that passion, and many people will be driven to explore other career options – unfortunately, that effect is especially powerful among older and more experienced staff, who are more likely to have families and to be highly motivated by career stability as a consequence.

The second, related source of damage is at the other end of the spectrum – a generation of enthusiastic and motivated young people who would love to work on video games, have shrugged off the scepticism of parents and career advisors for years, and have just spent more than a year watching headline after headline about games companies laying off staff.

Young people may be more idealistic about the pursuit of their passions and less averse to risk than older people, but they’re not idiots – we will never know how many potential future stars of the industry have cooled on their dreams of a games career after being exposed to the stark reality of how unstable this business can be for its staff. Here, too, there’s a problematic asymmetry; it’s the most high-achieving students with in-demand technical skills who will have the least problem switching career paths.

These problems – brain drain of experienced staff leaving for pastures greener, and challenges to attracting talented new staff at the entry level – have been exacerbated by the recent layoffs, but they’re not new by any means.

Solving them, to the extent that there is a solution, will be a slow and complex process, and some of the required changes are far beyond the scope of any industry skills body – improving staff retention by offering better stability and working conditions, for example, would be entirely outside the remit of such an organisation. (There’s a sad irony to the fact that the workplace unionisation efforts that the industry has expended so much energy on opposing would probably be a huge step towards solving staff retention problems.)

The Skillfull report does, however, highlight some areas that really could be improved. One number that leaped off the page to me, at least, was the incredibly low number of junior roles being advertised by game companies – a statistic that suggests a broad lack of commitment to developing and investing in new talent, as well as an inability to effectively plan forward for future staffing needs.

This is understandable to some degree, and on a case-by-case basis each recruitment decision no doubt looks justified – it’s when you zoom out to the broader industry level that the damaging trend becomes apparent. It goes without saying that junior positions represent a commitment from the employer because the staff will usually need to be trained quite a bit before being able to make a significant contribution to the company and its projects.

In an environment where hiring timelines are slow due to skills shortages, and tightened budgets often mean people aren’t being hired until they’re really needed – a “just-in-time” approach to staffing that’s often disastrous in tight labour markets – it’s easy to fall into a vicious cycle where no company feels that it has the latitude to hire and train junior staff.

Taking a broader and more long-term view, though, that just makes the skills shortage worse. Even in the medium term it means that for many positions the hiring process boils down to either poaching staff from another studio or waiting for a worse-off company to make layoffs.

We’re faced with a tragedy of the commons situation where everyone wants to hire from the pool of skilled staff but nobody wants to make the major investment required to train up new staff to join that pool. Right now, the surplus of skilled and experienced people looking for new roles in the wake of the industry’s layoff spree is probably pushing the skills shortage out of front of mind for many people, but the problem hasn’t gone away. This is an extremely temporary situation, and when it ends, the situation will be worse than it’s ever been.

Popular Articles