How the skills shortage is affecting tech in Manchester


This is the fourth and final piece in a series of articles looking at the issues currently preventing the Manchester tech scene from reaching its full potential. In this part, Manchester-based Nikki Scrivener, director and co-founder of Fourth Day PR, explains why some Manchester-based firms struggle with recruiting and retaining talent. 

Manchester isn’t alone in suffering from a technical skills shortage, and finding and keeping the right people produces a universal groan across the length and breadth of the UK.

According to the most recent results of Manchester Digital’s annual digital skills audit, developer roles were the most difficult to fill in the region for the fourth year in succession, with one in three companies saying they had struggled to fill these roles. 51% of Manchester Digital’s respondents also said they’d had to inflate salaries to compete, compared to 44% in 2016.

Recruitment, in fact, could be the biggest stumbling block to growth with companies bending over backwards to lure staff, not just from elsewhere in the UK but from their neighbouring businesses.

“With everyone from exciting tech start-ups to established media companies competing for the same people, it’s an employees’ market,” agrees Invosys CEO Rob Booth. “Whether you’re hiring local talent or bringing people in from overseas you need to make sure that there’s something unique that keeps them.”

It’s true that today’s employers need to offer something special to find and retain the best people. The working environment has also become key with some companies feeling compelled to move into the city centre from the surrounding regions to entice staff. From elaborate office fit-outs to extended holidays, numerous team building initiatives and shared equity schemes – every tech job spec screams ‘we’re trying very hard to make this the best possible place to work’.

Pimberly CEO Martin Balaam, who has previously worked in the US thinks it’s the right approach. While San Francisco has been accused of being all style over substance he argues that if you’re trying to attract talent then you’ve got to exude confidence. “You’ve got to make people look and take notice,” he says.

Millennials in particular don’t necessarily see money as the be all and end all. Environment, location, work/life balance, ethics and feeling valued are all equally important. “Staff want to feel like they’re on the journey with you,” adds Daniel Keighron-Foster who offered equity to all founding employees when Steamhaus launched.

New avenues for recruitment

Creating the best possible environment is one tactic but perhaps companies are also looking in the wrong place. The Manchester Digital study found that the gender gap in the North’s digital technology sector is widening. The male to female split in technical roles is 88:12, up from 70:30 last year. More than half of the businesses surveyed by Manchester Digital said their tech teams were all male.

Surely Manchester, birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst, can’t sit back and settle for this? There are plenty of initiatives out there encouraging women to enter the STEM industries. Why not make Manchester the female tech capital of Europe – let’s train and employ more women in the industry than any other city.

I’m also acutely aware that there are no female voices in this piece. The issue probably warrants an entire study in its own right.

There may also be an unconscious habit of recruiting white, male graduates. But some blue chips are already running first-rate apprenticeships, alongside funded degree courses – opening up opportunities to a much broader representation of society.

How our city can help

Manchester has a student population to rival anywhere in Europe, but we’re still struggling to retain enough talent post-graduation. The city itself has a part to play in changing this. The gap in rent for young people living in London compared to Manchester continues to widen and there is a huge opportunity to publicise this more. Couple that with investments in property, the arts, the media industry and even – fingers crossed – transport and infrastructure, and this becomes a very exciting and attractive place to live.

With the creation of the Metro Mayor role we now have a high profile spokesperson in Andy Burnham to push these messages. Burnham also claims to be committed to the region’s digital vision, going on record to say: “There’s a critical mass of companies, big and small, that are creating an incredible energy around digital in the city. We have to capitalise on that with a policy agenda focused on boosting the skills and infrastructure to support the development of a world-leading digital sector.”

You can read the previous article in this series, ‘Do Manchester tech entrepreneurs sell out too quickly?’  here. This series is from the What’s holding us back? report by Fourth Day PR.