Bridging Scotland’s digital skills gap

With digital skills becoming increasing important in the workplace, a growing number of organisations are raising concerns about a lack of suitably-trained employees.

Initiatives like CodeClan aim to bridge the digital skills gap. Picture: Chris Watt
Initiatives like CodeClan aim to bridge the digital skills gap. Picture: Chris Watt
Initiatives like CodeClan aim to bridge the digital skills gap. Picture: Chris Watt

Some 80,000 people work in Scotland’s digital technologies industry, which contributes about £4 billion to the economy, and while the sector is predicted to enjoy continued strong growth, recruiting people with the right skills is becoming increasingly onerous.

Trade body ScotlandIS recently published an industry survey that found 83 per cent of firms are planning to increase staff numbers, with 86 per cent expecting sales to rise in the coming year.

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But chief executive Polly Purvis said: “The skills gap is be­ginning to hit home, causing wage inflation and making it harder for companies to retain experience. By dealing with this problem now we will ensure that our industry is able to continue to grow and contribute to the Scottish economy.”

In an effort to tackle the problem, Scotland’s first dedicated software skills academy, CodeClan, is launching in Edinburgh to nurture the next generation of software developers. It will be managed by ScotlandIS in partnership with Skills Development Scotland and will run short courses to help students break into the industry.

Martin Brown, Scottish country manager at IT multinational EMC, said: “This is exactly the kind of thing we need more of.”

However, digital skills encompass more than software development alone, and many employers are also finding it difficult to find workers in the field of digital marketing.

According to a report by software firm Adobe, 82 per cent of marketing professionals learn the digital ropes on the job, but many firms lack adequate resources or employee-training programmes to bridge digital talent gaps.

Rene Looper, founder and managing director of Tuminds, a digital and social media agency that advises the likes of Diageo, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Highlands & Island Enterprise: “Recruiting for digital roles has always been difficult, despite the fact that businesses are continuing to increase their investment in it.

“The number of roles available keeps on growing, but it seems to be getting harder and harder to find suitable candidates for them. In fact, the Association of Professional Staffing Companies has found that there has been a 21 per cent fall in digital placements in 2014 against a 2 per cent increase in job openings.”

Looper said one issue is that universities have been slow to adapt, focusing on courses that teach traditional marketing or business fundamentals “but there has been little prospect of really equipping students with solid skills in digital as a whole”.

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However, internet marketing agency Attacat, led by managing director Tim Barlow, recently joined forces recently with the University of Edinburgh Business School to offer a new course in digital marketing, covering topics such as search engine optimisation, pay-per-click advertising and online analytics.

Barlow said: “As digital marketing has emerged there has been a real mismatch between the marketing being taught in universities and what digital marketers do in their day to day work. It’s also clear that there is a significant skills shortage in this industry.”

But with universities and specialist academies such as CodeClan beginning to help bridge the divide, the outlook seems to be brightening, and one key figure within the IT sector has called for action to begin at an even earlier stage in the education system.

Maggie Morrison, business development director for Scotland at technology group CGI, said one way of addressing the problem would be to change how digital skills such as coding are taught in schools, “starting with primary children”.

In a speech earlier this week to the Civil Service Live conference in Edinburgh, Morrison said: “Everyone interested in Scotland remaining competitive in our global economy and in addressing the digital divide has a role to play – government, educators, parents, career advisers and the digital industry itself.”