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Getting to grips with the UK’s digital skills crisis

Russ Shaw CBE, Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates founder
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The UK’s digital skills crisis is swiftly becoming the most significant threat to the future success of our tech industry. 

A recent report by recruitment firm Harvey Nash concluded that around 80% of digital leaders believe post-pandemic priorities among their employees have made retention even more difficult than ever before.

The tech industry is one of the few sectors to see phenomenal growth during the pandemic. The sector has attracted record investment, creates a substantial number of new jobs and is the powerhouse of the pioneering technologies at the forefront of our modern world. 

Yet, at one of the most exciting times to be a part of a high growth and forward-facing industry – companies are struggling to find the talent. There’s a knock-on effect for business incomes too. A 2021 DataIQ report of business executives reported an average loss of 10% of revenues, reported to be a result of the digital skills gap.

To be clear, tech and digital skills are not all about learning to code. There are transferable skills from other sectors such as project management, negotiation and commercial awareness that have the potential to be repurposed in a new working environment.

What’s more, jobs in the digital sector tend to be well paid – a recent Tech Nation report from earlier this year found that the average advertised digital tech salary is £50,663, which is 44% higher than non-digital. 

To sustain the UK’s digital dominance as the third global tech ecosystem alongside the US and China, we need to be absolutely committed to an overhaul of the way we approach digital skills. 

A solution to this will be multi-faceted, and requires both the government and private sector to take responsibility for addressing the skills shortage in equal measure. 

There are both short and long term solutions to take into consideration, to not only deepen the UK pool of digitally-apt recruits, but also broaden horizons to welcome international tech talent to the UK. 

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The Autumn Budget outlined the UK’s Innovation Strategy, seeking to build on the strong foundations of the UK’s tech industry. Part of this strategy included the announcement of the long-awaited Scale Up Visa, and the establishment of the Global Talent Network. The Chancellor seems to be firmly on the side of supporting the growth of UK tech with these announcements. 

The Chancellor also announced a £3.8bn investment in skills spending – a figure that is indicative of a government that understands the magnitude of the skills deficit, and a commitment to building a digital-first UK workforce. Whilst this is a bold step in the right direction, we need to ensure that we see the effects of this at a grassroots level, for which private and public sector collaboration will be essential.

The Government should not be doing this on its own. The private sector must also invest in digital skills to make the UK workforce better prepared for the jobs of the future as it will be a key beneficiary. It has a vital role to play in putting the resources behind both the reskilling and upskilling of workers in tandem with the efforts from the public sector.

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

A useful example of a private-public sector collaboration to address the digital skills shortage is underway between Camden Council and Google’s Career Certificates programme, which gives people the skills and learning needed to secure high-quality and well-paid employment in high-growth technology and IT roles. The career certificate takes up to six months to earn and will be offered free of charge to 500 learners in Camden with aspirations to work in technology and IT. 

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to work this out – we can achieve a great deal by enhancing the courses, schemes and placements already in place. We can build on the knowledge and expertise of those already tackling the issue and support the education technology organisations around the country.

We are at a critical juncture for the future of the UK’s tech industry. The sector is a national (and international) success story, and we simply can’t afford to fail at addressing one of the biggest challenges it faces. The future of our economy and society is digital – and we must do all we can to nurture the talent today, to equip ourselves for success tomorrow. 

Russ Shaw CBE, Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates founder

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