Growing the North of England’s pool of tech talent / Andrew Lawson

16 Sep, 2016

Over the past five years, the UK’s tech industry has been booming, primarily because mobile and cloud-based technologies now power nearly everything we do. This is great news, not just for the sector itself, but also for the economy as a whole.

Even more important, these advances aren’t restricted to London and the South. Companies like Sage, in the North East of England, are creating thousands of jobs and fuelling the local economy. Growing companies such as Wakelet, Virgin Money, and Geek Talent are also opening roles across the UK. And, as reported by analyst firm IDC, the economic impact of just one technology company, Salesforce, and its ecosystem of customers and partners will drive more than £12.2 billion of GDP and 54,000 new jobs in the UK by 2018.

Victims of our own success

The picture should be a rosy one. But, in a way, we’ve become victims of our own success. For the past decade or so, we’ve been facing a tech skills shortage, and as a result, companies across the country are unable to recruit enough skilled employees quickly enough to meet demand.

No question, there are pockets of excellent technical skills. Teeside and Manchester come to mind, with their initiatives designed to increase technology development and deployment. But government statistics demonstrate it’s not enough – nearly 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are currently unable to fill all their tech roles.

What makes the issue even more pressing is the fact that the more we as a country rely on technology to help make our lives easier, the more we need these skilled technology workers. It’s time for all of us to ‘mind the gap’ that’s been created – and fix it now.

Steps in the right direction

Recently, we’ve seen steps in the right direction. For instance, computing is now part of the national curriculum for all students aged six to 16 and there are many other programmes to get more students interested in studying science, maths, engineering and computing at A-level and beyond. And the industry is stepping up and helping organisations like CoderDojo get the younger generation excited about STEM subjects.

But these are long-term approaches. And while that’s great, we also need to focus on the short-term, because as tech businesses from Newcastle to Liverpool and from Carlisle to Hull will tell you, there’s a very real need in the here and now.

It’s important to acknowledge that within the tech industry there are a whole host of skills required and some roles are more technical than others. We will always look for highly skilled developers and engineers, because these are the people that develop and innovate new products that help make businesses better and make society as a whole more productive.

It takes time and dedication for these professionals to acquire the skills they need: there’s no getting around that and not everyone has the temperament or skills to become a top developer or engineer.

Upskilling non-technical roles

Fortunately, there’s a huge range of positions that don’t require that intensive background to make a difference. And every company needs to work on filling these roles too.

Once we’ve recruited those people, we do need to upskill to a basic technology understanding and one of the best ways to do that? Enter learning programmes such as Trailhead, a free online learning platform that teaches a range of digital skills, such as how to develop different types of Salesforce apps.

Trailhead is just one of several industry platforms and initiatives created to offer learning opportunities for those who want to add technical skills to their experience. Many of these courses have been designed for people starting with very little technical skill ̶ although some, like Trailhead, also have learning trails for professional developers looking to top-up their expertise. One of the advantages of these types of courses is that those following them are able to learn at their own pace and in an environment that has been designed to be fun and engaging.

Promoting tech as a career choice

Initiatives for young people, in-house training and online courses are all great ways of encouraging more people to join the tech industry. I do feel, however, that all of us in the sector also need to make that extra effort to encourage people to consider a career in tech – we all need to be industry ambassadors.

So, the next time you meet someone who is embarking on their first job, thinking about changing careers or even just applying for a new position, mind that gap ̶ and remind them that the technology industry is open for business right now ̶ and looking for great people to create their careers and flourish.

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