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Market Trend - IT Skills Gap: What is being done to bring the UK back into line?

A growing skills gap threatens the UK tech industry: Data and cyber security skills the most in demand.

The UK’s digital economy is one of the largest in the world and as technology continues to play an increasingly important role in the way many businesses operate, the need for skilled workers is more evident than ever.

Around 1.4 million people are currently employed by digital companies in the UK, filling a variety of IT roles ranging from software development, systems management and cyber security, to website design and development, and technical support roles. These figures are only set to rise, with estimates that digital employment will grow by more than 5% by 2020, and contribute up to £200 billion to the UK economy by 2025[1].

While these figures undoubtedly reflect a flourishing sector of the jobs market, many employers are experiencing an increasingly evident skills gap when trying to recruit into specialist IT roles. A 2016 report from global recruitment company Hired, titled Mind the Gap, revealed key skills shortages in the following specialist IT areas:

  • Data engineers
  • Cyber security
  • Python, Ruby, UI and UX programming

 Data is King

Data and data security are particularly important areas to many businesses, with huge volumes of data being produced every day, which has the potential to be extremely valuable. Data engineers perform a vital role in organising, analysing and responding to this data, allowing companies to use it to their advantage. Such large volumes of personal data bring security risks, however, and recent high-profile data security breaches - such as in the NHS and Yahoo - highlight the importance of cyber security.

There have already been cautionary tones on the subject of cyber security from industry analysts. The 'Cybersecurity: Protecting Your Future' report, published in July 2016 by recruitment firm Robert Half, revealed that 77% of UK Chief Information Officers believe that the cyber security threat will grow because of a shortage of talent. The UK Government has also launched a £1.9 billion cyber security strategy in a bid to make the UK 'one of the safest places in the world to do business.' Part of that strategy is to invest funds in developing a 'world-class cyber workforce' - an indication that the Government recognises a need to invest in skills in this key area.

Programming to Compete

The lack of high-end programmers with skills in Python, Ruby, UI and UX further highlights the extent of the UK's IT skills gap, with expertise in these programming languages being seen as vital to the future of the digital economy.

As technology plays an increasingly important role in the world we live in, having the ability to adapt and customise the platforms and interfaces that we use in our daily lives is only going to become more important for businesses. Having a skilled workforce with the expertise to do that will become increasingly vital if the UK is to keep its place as one of the top digital economies in the world.

Why such a gap?

A number of factors are discussed when attempting to understand the reason for these gaps, with key contributing areas identified as:

Education. The number of students undertaking Computer Science degrees in the UK dropped by over 23% between 2002 and 2012, statistics from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show. This contributes to the UK being significantly behind in the European and world markets - France, for example, provides more computer science graduates than any other European country.

Global competition. Software developers in the United States are paid on average well over 30% more than their counterparts in the UK. This means we are not only producing less experts in key skills areas, we are also in a relatively weak position in the global jobs market, making retention of UK talent a significant issue.

Brexit. The European perspective has the potential to be even more influential on the skills gap when we also consider the potential consequences of Brexit on the sector.

Of the current 1.4 million employees in the tech industry, 80,000 are estimated to be from other European Union countries, and their future in the UK employment market is now uncertain.

Not only does this create an immediate concern for the current workforce, it also further highlights the importance of developing these key skills in the UK to safeguard for the future.

What's being done?

Government Initiatives

The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology highlight a need to "Establish an effective pipeline of individuals with specialist skills in data science, coding [...] data analysis and computing." Their report, titled 'Digital skills crisis', calls for a number of measures across the industry to tackle the issue, including:

  • Businesses to invest in digital training with an emphasis not only on the current need but also future innovations.
  • The Government to put in place strategies to develop skills in key areas - including cyber security, 'big data', mobile technology and e-commerce.
  • Mapping of public sector and industry initiatives that are developing digital skills, to share best practice and forge key collaborations.
  • Reviewing working visa requirements to make sure the best talent from across the world is available to UK businesses.
  • Develop the Digital Champions initiative, to ensure a wide spread of digital skills throughout workforces and consumer bases.

Employer Strategies

In-house training. Company requirements and preferences are constantly changing and it would be near-impossible for a new employee to arrive at a company fully-formed, perfectly in-tune with the company working practices and up to date in all skill areas. Some in-house training will always be required but just how much will depend on the role and the company - and also on how much time the company is willing to invest. With the skills gap looking set to increase, it will pay for employers to assume an increased level of in-house training, to make sure they get the right skills to keep their company's IT services moving in the right direction. Offering a high level of staff development will also promote staff loyalty and retention, which is all the more important in a skills-short market.

Valuing self-taught skills. While the number of Computer Science graduates has fallen since 2002, a significant percentage - over 20% - of the digital workforce possess self-taught skills. This is an area that shouldn't necessarily be overlooked by employers, who would traditionally value formal qualifications when selecting candidates. The rapid nature of the technology industry means that curriculums followed by formal courses aren't always the most up to date and a degree of self-training by a programmer or developer could mean that their skill set is extremely current - perhaps more so than that of a recent graduate.

 Looking to the Future

While it's important to look at ways of addressing the immediate situation, it also pays to look to the long term. A number of grass roots initiatives, such as Barclays Code Playground, are doing this, with a focus on introducing children to key IT skills from a young age, fostering engagement and enthusiasm in the next generation.

 Collaboration between the Government, business and education sectors is key to measuring and reviewing the extent of the skills gap and driving change to help reduce it. Clearly there is a long way to go before we start shrinking the tech skills gap but the more we raise the profile of this issue, the more likely it is that we can do something about it.

[1] Figures from Department for Culture, Media and Sport policy paper 'The Digital Sectors - making the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business, published March 2017.