The technology sector represents a huge opportunity for the UK. We have the potential to become a leading global player and the time is now to make sure that the UK economy leverages technology to improve productivity and to harness the economic opportunities of our digital present and our digital future.
With opportunity comes challenge and the IT industry in the UK has an elephant in the room. The ticking time-bomb is simply that we are creating more tech jobs than we can fill. The lack of skilled people with coding skills, design skills and software engineering skills is a huge challenge and is becoming increasingly pronounced as the UK becomes a more tech-focused economy.
Tech businesses are fishing in a very limited pool – certainly at the highly skilled, highly specialised, sharp end of the industry – and one that’s simply not big enough to feed the need.
From working with the many thousands of businesses of all shapes, sizes and industries who range from innovative start-ups to world-leading global tech companies – I hear the difficulties that business leaders face in filling jobs and accessing talent.
Research indicates the UK will need 754,000 additional workers before 2020 with digital skills if employers are to meet demand.
Ignore this crisis at our peril…
While part of this problem is one of basic supply and demand – which is squeezing wages up in the tech sector – there is also another story at play…. Walk into any tech business and, even as a casual observer, you will notice that there is a very clear demographic at play. Employees are white and overwhelmingly male. This last detail is the most important point – across the UK, the average percentage of female company employees in tech are female and this has not moved upwards in many years. Add to that, the numbers of young girls choosing STEM subjects and the numbers tell you that we will run out of talent or, worse, that companies will exit the country and run towards countries which encourage and nurture tech talent.
I am fortunate to have someone supporting my team who wakes up in the morning and worries about diversity. And that is her entire focus. Unsurprisingly then, gender parity at Sage is 48 per cent, although in technical roles we hover around the 30% mark. So we’ve got some way to go as well…
Creating policies like specifically changing the wording of a job description to make it more appealing across genders can have a profound effect on the types of applicants attracted. For example, changing the job title for software engineer to ‘problem solver’ increases the range of talent exponentially. A simple change in language can do a lot for diversity. Let’s face it, many of us are problem solvers in our daily lives or use the skills which are core to coding. These can be untapped areas.
In a similar vein women returner programmes will fire up a massive army of opportunity, if we can inspire those on a career break to re-enter the world of technology. Many organisations have great best practice relating to women returners and, of course, technology enables flexible working, so that work is no longer a place, it is where you are. This is a massive enabler for working parents and, if embraced effectively, this can enable the tech industry to take advantage of tech talent from all four corners of the country and offer the opportunity to engage a workforce which needs flexible working practices.
Of course it’s not just about meeting today’s demand. We need to create a national environment to cultivate and grow interest, skills and passion at grassroots level and build an ecosystem where these new skills can prosper. Encouraging children into this exciting industry, to embrace STEM, and to create their own futures is an imperative and some companies are making enormous strides in this area.
Leapfrogging today’s learning to reap the rewards of recognising Artificial Intelligence as the new User Interface is going to be key here. Human-type interfaces are changing everything. We live in a world where the question ‘how can Alexa help you today?’ can span from the age of infant understanding to generations who have previously avoided the digital world. It is easy to see how home help and healthcare might be entirely transformed through the use of robotics. And the list of opportunity is growing each day thanks to Amazon’s open approach to the software that powers her.
It’s exciting. It’s sexy. It’s a world of undiscovered opportunity. Many of the jobs children will do when they leave school haven’t yet been created. That’s truly inspiring and a little scary! And it’s our duty to get them ready for it.
But let’s not be ageist here either. There’s an opportunity to battle the generation gap too and step across the digital divide. An older person is much more likely to benefit from accessing tech help via language than via a keyboard. With just a few words, they’ll be able to get a voice-powered virtual in-home assistant to spring to life and turn on a light, play their favourite music, self-service healthcare, read the day’s headlines and get them a taxi. This tech future is on our doorstep. We just need to invite it in.
We all have a role to play here. The sector must continue to work hard to ensure we are moving the dial. By encouraging women, young talent and veterans to enter the tech industry we become more robust, more competitive and more innovative. If a whole organisation is behind an initiative to drive change, it will happen. My challenge to the Digital Leaders network is to be amazing role models and shine a light on opportunity to inspire and encourage women returners and the stars of tomorrow to be part of this amazing industry.
Finally, I would also urge the government to think long and hard about the 12.6% of GDP that the tech sector delivers and, on behalf of our industry, I would ask for a proper review of the smart movement of tech talent as we walk forward into future arrangements for the UK post-Brexit