Digital Skills *and* Innovative Flair Necessary in Digital Crucible

The UK tech and digital sector has long enjoyed a reputation as leader of the global pack when it comes to innovation and job creation. Partly, it stems from the happy proximity of London’s tech hub Silicon Roundabout to both government and Europe’s leading financial centre, a serendipity which has historically helped it into pole position. Now with the double blow of the Brexit vote last June and an entrepreneur-unfriendly budget from the UK Chancellor yesterday, how does the UK’s digital future look?

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Certainly, the Government is appraised of the skills shortage that threatens the sector at large: it reported in its Digital Skills for the UK Economy paper of January 2016 that 72% of large enterprises and 49% of SMEs are suffering tech skill gaps. In this respect, Chancellor Philip Hammond’s budget pledge of £300m to invest in STEM (science technology, engineering and manufacturing) subjects and commitment to technical training was a welcome boost for the national economy and digital interests.

Petra Wilton, Director of Strategy and External Affairs at the CMI said, “For the UK economy to punch above its weight post-Brexit, we need to start ramping-up the number of young people entering the labour force with work-ready higher skills. That’s why CMI welcomes the Chancellor earmarking £500m a year to support 16-to-19-year olds in technical education.”

Anna Purchas, Partner and Head of Learning at KPMG in the UK, further commented about the new T-levels, “If designed in partnership with business, [technical apprenticeships] have the potential to provide the skills organizations need and may also enable employers to access a previously untapped pool of talent, if the new qualifications appeal to those put off by the traditional academic route.”

The problem is whether the Government ‘gets’ the importance of tech entrepreneurial activity and the need to provide an environment in which this can flourish and scale. As Catherine Hall, Head of Tax for Mazars commented on the Class 4 NI taxation levy,The Chancellor will have disappointed many entrepreneurs and business owners, despite his pledge to make the UK the ‘best place in the world to start and grow a business’. There were no new incentives to encourage investment or increase capital value.”

In general, the UK is not producing enough young people with the skills to meet the needs of the country’s employers, finds the UK Commission for Employment and Skills; and the skills they do have are well below the levels of our international competitors. Remember, too, that the ongoing skills shortage occurs against the backdrop of the Brexit vote, and the task ahead to retain and grow the UK digital sector becomes formidable.

“London has committed suicide as a leading FinTech centre,” tweeted Jochen Siegert, Chief Operating Officer of Traxpay, a Frankfurt-based payments platform in the hours after the Brexit vote. Berlin, the hub of Germany’s tech industry, sent a billboard recruitment van to Shoreditch in the weeks after Brexit, and believes it can capitalize on the UK’s decision to leave the EU and become Europe’s cradle of tech innovation.

Recognition of the need to upskill the entire nation to be digital-ready is a good start by the Government to preserve the UK’s digital position. But just as any start-up or corporation knows, general skills levels alone will achieve nothing in the digital economy without innovative flair and risk-taking. The economic environment has to be conducive to technology pioneers who don’t fit into spreadsheet thinking.

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Helen Beckett

Author: Helen Beckett

Helen Beckett is the Community Manager of the Business Value Exchange. She has been a writer and editor for over 20 years and takes a particular interest in the challenges facing the CIO in today’s business climate.