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DSIT must prioritise fixing the UK’s tech talent shortage

tech talent DSIT

The UK tech sector is crying out for talent. The current tech talent shortage has been exacerbated by a wider backdrop of economic inactivity and warnings of some of the lowest rates of overall workforce participation in almost 30 years.

To unlock the potential of the country’s digital and tech sector, and support wider economic growth, bridging the gap between skill supply and demand requires urgent attention.

According to the recruitment firm Hays, almost 95% of employers looking for tech talent have encountered a skills shortage over the past year, up from 89% the previous year.

The creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) in February demonstrated a promising political commitment to the prime minister’s innovation agenda and should be applauded.

The upcoming Spring Budget represents a pivotal moment to address the prevailing gaps in the UK’s tech workforce and demonstrate the government’s commitment towards developing a great pool of diverse talent to underpin growth in the sector.

Homegrown skills

Ensuring that homegrown talent has relevant and up-to-date skills is essential to fill current workforce gaps and keep up with changing demands. The capability of the UK workforce to adapt as the future of work shifts will be critical to ensuring that the UK remains a leading tech ecosystem globally.

Building a strong and agile tech workforce starts with high-quality STEM education in schools, accessible and varied apprenticeship schemes as well as readily available training opportunities in the workplace.

Learning does not stop once your feet are under the desk. As automation and artificial intelligence continue to transform the way we do business, the skills that organisations require are evolving. Therefore, the importance of re-skilling and upskilling programmes for those looking to change careers or re-enter the workforce – after having children, extended illness or a career break for example – cannot be overlooked.

Addressing the UK’s tech talent shortage and changing workforce needs should be an effort that spans both the public and private sector.

Virgin Media and O2’s Tech and the Battle for Talent report found that 36% of UK workers said their organisation rarely (if ever) provides training on the use of digital technology. Meanwhile, 32% regarded a lack of training opportunities as the second biggest reason behind the skills shortage in the workplace.

The government should broaden its focus and investment in the Apprenticeship Levy so that employers can allocate resources to upskill workers with the necessary skills to fill persisting gaps. But employers need to play their part, too. Offering ongoing opportunities for training and professional development sets up any business for success, but also demonstrates care for employees’ careers, in turn enhancing a company’s ability to retain talent. Yet, according to The Economist, citing Eurostat results, “British firms spend only half as much on training per employee as European ones”. 

Untapped talent pools

In addition to the lack of training for those in the workforce, there is a significant amount of talent across the UK from underrepresented communities that remains untapped and often ignored.

It is our collective responsibility as an industry to engage people who struggle to access work or face numerous barriers during application and ensure equal opportunity to access the required skills for a job in tech.

Companies and employers need to be present in the communities where talent can be discovered, engage with young people (and their parents) and help them see the potential of a career in tech. Mentoring and work experience programmes offer a practical solution to offer young people and people looking to enter the tech sector for the first time connections with tech leaders who can share advice and guidance. Career advisors are desperate for companies to come into schools to share their insights on the jobs and skills of the future.

Reaching underrepresented communities will be key to bolstering the UK’s tech workforce and helping to build the best products and services to compete on the global tech stage. 

Global talent pipeline

The upcoming closure of Tech Nation after it lost its government funding has left a question mark over the Global Talent Visa, which since its creation has facilitated the best tech talent from around the world to work in the UK.

While Tech Nation will continue to run a visa processing programme for tech employees until the end of March, the Home Office will be considering long-term options for the scheme.

It is critical that the UK tech sector continues to attract and welcome global talent if it is to maintain a competitive edge in the global tech ecosystem. Last year, Tech Nation found that 18% of all UK tech scaleups are run by at least one non-UK founder and raised around 23% of all investment into the UK tech ecosystem.

DSIT must tackle tech talent shortage

For the prime minister to fulfil his ambition of making this country a beacon of science, technology and enterprise, deliver more jobs and lift productivity and growth rates, the government must act to change the supply and demand discrepancy for technology skills.

With 82% of all jobs in the UK listing digital skills as a key requirement, this reaches far beyond the tech sector. The Digital Skills Council, chaired my Paul Scully MP, will need to address this point.

It will be important for the new DSIT to solve the tech talent shortage in the short term through increased investment in skills development programmes, engaging untapped talent pools, and ensuring that the Global Talent Visa is supported and protected. These initiatives will strengthen the UK’s talent pipeline.

In the longer term, the government must take heed of how quickly the tech industry is evolving and ensure that the UK’s education system – from school through to later life learning – keeps pace, learns from other countries and offers opportunities to anyone wanting to enhance their digital skills.

Creating more demand for world-class tech talent and enhancing the supply of such talent will ensure that the UK maintains its position as a world-leading tech ecosystem.

Russ Shaw CBE is the founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates, and a regular UKTN columnist.