Tech companies need to work with universities to plug the skills gap

Unless you’ve studiously avoided consuming any media for the last three months, you’ll know that the general election is fast approaching. Unsurprisingly, the level of discourse is fairly low, I’ve read more about how Ed Miliband is ‘weird’ than I have about what a ‘long-term economic plan’ actually involves. Completely missing from the political debate, some would say criminally, is a discussion on how to solve the UK’s entrenched productivity crisis.

Undoubtedly, a big factor in the lag in the productivity of the UK’s workforce is a chronic shortage of the right skills. Plenty has been written about how the skills gap is stopping the UK’s tech industry from reaching its potential by slowing growth and putting up prices. Much less has been written about what can actually be done to solve the problem. In my opinion, big strives can be taken through a policy of closer collaboration between universities and tech companies.

I’m not coming at this problem from a purely theoretical standpoint. We’re constantly hiring data scientists, which I would argue is one of the rarest skillsets within the tech industry and consequently where the skills gap would be most apparent. However, we have been able to quickly hire a wide range of talented individuals thanks to our Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with the University of Essex.

In short, a KTP aims to improve postgraduate skills and business research by creating a framework where a university can send a recent postgraduate to an organisation to undertake a specified project. The cost of the project is shared between the government and the organisation.

It’s a win-win situation, postgraduates quickly improve their skills and get valuable work-experience, businesses get additional support, the completion of a useful project and to assess, for minimal cost, a potential new recruit. The KTP has given us the opportunity to interview a solid list of candidates both directly and from the extended network of The University of Essex and indirectly via positive word of mouth.

KTPs aren’t a new idea, the programme has existed in one form or another for more than a decade. There are currently 800 collaborations between organisations and universities resulting in 10,000 KTPs. Around 70% of graduates are offered employment at the end of the KTP. There isn’t a solid figure on how many startups have taken advantage of KTPs, but from a quick review of the organisations involved, the numbers aren’t huge. I would guess that the reason more tech companies haven’t taken advantage of a KTPs is a mixture of little publicity on the programme and the relatively narrow skill set they can service.

Obviously, KTPs as they currently exist aren’t a solution for the whole tech industry, however, the principle is sound. Working closely with a university allows a tech company to define the skills they require, engage with students who could be drawn into areas such as financial services, and give students real world experience.

I’m quite certain many people would argue that collaborations like this currently exist between tech companies like Google and universities and academies. What I’m advocating is an industry-wide drive to engage directly with universities. This can take the form of ad hoc relationships built up between tech companies and local universities and technical colleges, more formal collaborations involving the exchange of students and staff, a fully funded government initiative or even more collaboration between university faculty members and tech workers via forums.

The tech sector is incredibly dynamic and it is becoming increasingly difficult for universities to teach a curriculum with the flexibility and range that is needed. The tech scene should take a leaf out of the pharmaceutical industry’s approach and make collaboration with universities a key part of their approach to growth. After all, failure to address the tech skills gap through more hands on training and closer collaboration will only perpetuate the creation of a generation of graduates that have limited options.

Simply opining about whose fault the skills gap is will do nothing to address the underlying problems within the UK’s economy. Nor does it make sense to wait for the government to step in, especially given how spending restrictions are likely to continue to curtail expensive new initiatives in the next parliament. Relying on plugging the skills gap through immigration is also a short-sighted approach as immigration policy is likely to become more restrictive, especially if the UK leaves the EU.

Addressing the talent shortage is in everyone’s interest, as a limited pool of expertise slows growth and pushes up hiring costs. If a KTP can provide Profusion with a supply of data scientists, then there is no reason why, if the same collaborative approach is applied on an industry-wide basis, it can’t go a long way to plugging the skills gap problem across the UK.

Written by Mike Weston, CEO of data science consultancy Profusion