UK tech hiring storm has passed, but cloud hangs over diversity stats

women in tech diversity Image credit: Mix Tape / Shutterstock

After nearly two years of hiring freezes and cuts, employment in the tech sector is finally on the rise again. Data published last week by the ONS found that, from Q1 to Q2 this year, more than 85,000 people were hired into tech roles in the UK.

These are encouraging statistics, indicating that the dip that followed the post-pandemic tech boom may have bottomed out. It confirmed the potential of the tech sector to lead the UK’s wider recovery amid an otherwise challenging economic environment.

Despite these figures, the tech industry’s recruitment challenge is far from solved. In the same period this year, the number of women working in tech actually declined by 3,000.

Improving diversity has been a long-standing challenge for the UK tech sector, alongside a national digital skills gap that only seems to be widening.

So, while having more stability in hiring numbers is welcome news, it is essential that both the public and private sectors do not lose sight of the further improvements that need to be made to ensure that these early signs of recovery do not prove to be a false dawn.

The risk of failing to act

Without sufficiently investing in the digital skills that are set to define the economies of the decades to come, the UK cannot maintain its position as a world-leading tech sector.

The prime minister hopes that the upcoming summit on artificial intelligence at Bletchley Park will position the UK as a world leader in AI safety, but this will be unachievable if it is not backed up by policies that invest in the digital skills needed for the nation to get there.

As well as harming economic growth and innovation, failing to invest in digital skills adversely impacts job satisfaction and job security. Research from Gallup found that more than seven in ten workers who use advanced digital skills at work expressed satisfaction with their roles, compared to just over four in ten who use basic digital skills.

Investment in these skills therefore also helps with a critical part of long-term business success – more satisfied workers leads to better rates of talent retention.

What is the government doing?

While the government is taking some important actions on digital skills, current policies should go further. They could be rolled out more quickly to signal that the government really views skillset enhancement as vital.

The ‘Cyber Explorers’ scheme launched in 2022 promised to equip pupils with the skills and knowledge to pursue computer science courses at Key Stage 4, but its opt-in nature (not made part of the national curriculum) meant it was only taken up by around half of the UK’s secondary schools.

As part of the ‘Skills and Talent’ section of last year’s Digital Strategy, the government announced funding for 1,000 PhDs in AI and 1,000 scholarships for master’s degree conversion courses in AI and data science. While a welcome move, overall this section lacked the robustness needed for equipping the UK workforce for the future, especially for the jobs needed right now across emerging tech verticals.

As well as planning for the future, the tech industry needs job-ready digital talent now. Therefore, schemes capable of quickly filling the gaps the industry is experiencing immediately are needed alongside those that will benefit the workforce in years and decades to come.

Improving UK tech diversity and skills gap

One area where immediate progress can be made in filling current gaps across the tech sector is upskilling and reskilling. This is not the responsibility of the government alone. The private sector – as a key beneficiary – must invest its fair share into digital skills to ensure the UK workforce is better prepared for the jobs of the future.

There are many organisations that know how to conduct digital skills training already – the likes of Jumpstart, Digital Boost, UpSkill Digital and Code First Girls, for example, are effective schemes with a great track record.

Large organisations like BT and Google have invested heavily over the years to support digital skills training amongst the broader workforce population.

Making an active effort to hire diversely is also an essential part of the solution – companies cannot be passive on this issue. Relying on blind CVs in the hiring process, for example, is not enough. Instead, tech firms must work to be actively present in communities not yet represented in the industry by offering mentoring, work experience and career advice to reach people it would not otherwise, and ensure skills gaps can be filled.

Finally, the UK must continue to make itself an appealing destination for overseas talent. It’s vital that the Founders Forum Group’s acquisition of Tech Nation supports applications for the Global Talent Visa. The launch of High Potential Individual and Scaleup visas points towards promising government policies on this issue, but the process needs to be made much smoother to avoid dissuading potentially suitable candidates from around the world.

While recent hiring statistics suggest the storm may have passed, there remains a systemic skills gap and underrepresentation within the tech sector necessary for a brighter future to be fully realised.

Upskilling, reskilling, and continuing to attract global talent will be fundamental in ensuring the UK’s tech sector can continue to grow and reach its full potential.  This ‘investment in skills and talent’ will yield a significant return in the years ahead.

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