The writer is international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center
Almost 100,000 people have been fired from technology companies in the US so far in 2023. They came to the office only to find out their badges were disabled or their inboxes inaccessible.
For those individuals involved, being caught in a historic wave of lay-offs is obviously dramatic — and painful. But at the same time, the changing face of Silicon Valley, previously seen as the home of dream employers, creates unprecedented new momentum for a public sector that urgently needs tech talent.
Special hiring programmes and additional budgets should be made available by governments worldwide to scoop up all those talented people who have suddenly found themselves looking for work.
One of the most inspiring and enjoyable parts of my own work is mentoring students. At first glance, the job opportunities for graduates from one of the top technology universities in the world seem almost endless. But in practice they can end up being quite limited — especially for those who do not come from affluent families. Loans and debt can be life-long burdens.
It is often with heavy hearts that these graduates end up taking higher paying jobs at technology companies instead of following other ambitions — working for the government, say, or for an NGO. While the corporate bottom line is far removed from their ideals, nothing beats a hefty pay cheque.
Many young professionals take jobs at these big tech companies while hoping they can make a positive impact dealing with anything from privacy at Facebook to ethics at TikTok or trust and safety at Twitter. Yet often new recruits are jaded before they properly begin; ideals have to make way for corporate earnings and rarely are the most junior hires made responsible for the most strategic decisions.
Still, it is hard to beat Silicon Valley perks including all-you-can-eat cafeterias and on-site massages (although many companies are now cutting back on these benefits to save money). The strongest appeal though must be the certainty of a job and opportunities to switch to new roles in different companies.
Now, that certainty is a thing of the past. But the biggest impact of the tech lay-offs may well be how they have changed the image of the tech sector in the eyes of young people who, like my students, are deciding where to work. The Silicon Valley shine has worn off. And that is good news for the public sector if it is able to seize the opportunity.
As tech companies lose their lustre, governments should step up by jump-starting special hiring programmes now. In the spirit of the Tech Talent Project and the Tech Congress Fellowship, they can begin to bridge the technology skills gap in the public sector.
There is hardly a city hall, public school or rural hospital that does not lack the capacity to deal with technology as an integral part of its operations. That makes them dependent on tech companies, vulnerable to cyber attack and underperforming in service delivery.
McKinsey’s Global Institute says that more than 1.7mn people with technological skills will be needed in the EU public sector alone this year. The World Bank recommends building capacity in public administrations to avoid ICT project failures by changing the culture and hiring the right people.
Take enforcement of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Currently, there is a backlog of thousands of cases that go uninvestigated. With the rollout of algorithmic accountability laws, the uptake of AI and growing scrutiny over platform companies, more tech-savvy workers will be needed in public institutions everywhere.
Public sector tech challenges are certainly bigger and more complicated than simply scooping up engineers and data scientists kicked out of private companies because of disappointing profit margins. But now is the time to begin to reverse the downward spiral of talent.
Offering temporary contracts to unemployed computer scientists allowing them to contribute to projects with discernible societal impact; bringing in security researchers to build more robust infrastructure and corporate lawyers to improve the public procurement of technologies — these are all steps in the right direction that governments can take.
Those who accept roles in public institutions will find their lunches are not free. But even in Silicon Valley, they never really were.