Martin Brown: Tackling tech skills shortages

Technology is part of our everyday lives more than ever before. Smartphones and tablets are multiplying like rabbits, all generations are increasingly doing their shopping and even their socialising online, and almost every business now relies on technology in some form or another to operate and communicate.

Despite lucrative pay, the IT sector is facing a skills shortage
Despite lucrative pay, the IT sector is facing a skills shortage

This is no longer a backroom career dominated by geeks – having the right technology skills creates the opportunity to join almost any industry you want, and shape the future of the business you work for. So why on earth would such an exciting sector be facing a huge skills shortage?

There is little doubt that this is indeed the case in Scotland, where the IT and digital technologies sector – which includes software development, telecoms and IT services – employs 73,000 people and accounts for around 3 per cent of the economy.

In 2014, ScotlandIS – the trade body for the Scottish technology industry – asked tech businesses what factors they thought would have the biggest impact on their business in the coming year. Two of the top four answers were “lack of candidates coming forward” and “recruitment of staff with the appropriate skills/qualifications.” With 77 per cent of businesses stating that they hoped to increase their workforce in the 12 months following the survey, it is clear that a lack of skills is hindering growth in the technology sector.

This skills shortage was clearly highlighted at our recent TechManifesto event, where several senior players in the tech sectors expressed strong concern about the demographic time bomb facing the industry, the severe lack of skills which will impact on Scotland’s economic performance and, probably most importantly, the apparent lack of short- and medium-term solutions to address these issues.

One would instinctively tend to think of the technology sector as a young person’s game, but the stats tell a different story. Only 14 per cent of employees in the Scottish tech sector are aged 16-24, and the age bracket most workers fall into is 35-44. It seems that young people, despite being more tech-savvy than ever before, are just not being attracted to the industry. There are simply not enough graduates coming through our universities and colleges with the correct skills to meet current high demand.

Gender inequality is still a huge issue, with latest research showing only 17 per cent of technology positions in Scotland are filled by women. This is despite clear evidence of the business benefits of having a more balanced gender profile. If you take women out of the pool of potential talent available to the industry, there becomes a bit of a drought. Women are not naturally attracted to work in technology, and part of this could be due to the sector’s pervasive image problem. When many people think of a technical whizz, they still picture an uncool, geeky guy that nobody wanted to be friends with in school. There is also a misunderstanding of the wide range of careers available.

The problem begins at a young age. It’s almost inbuilt for a child to say “I want to be a doctor” rather than “I want to be a data scientist”. Parents tend to direct clever children towards a traditional career like law or medicine. A survey carried out in 2014 sadly found that only 19 per cent of girls would consider a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (known as STEM) compared with 51 per cent of boys.

Perhaps we need some cool role models to educate young people, especially girls, not only about the variety of careers available, but also the exciting future someone can expect when working in technology.

The irony is that technology companies are increasingly embracing the flexible, remote and “virtual” working practices which are normally highly attractive to women and younger people. In a major 2012 study by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 59 per cent of ICT employers reported that their workers had access to flexible working arrangements – higher than in every other sector except government services. These opportunities don’t exist so often if you’re a doctor or lawyer.

So how do we address our sector’s image problem and skills shortage? There’s no easy or quick answer, but getting children interested early would be a good place to start. There is a wealth of talent in primary and secondary schools just waiting to be tapped into, so perhaps tech businesses should be bringing in more pupils on work experience placements, to give them a flavour of what it would be like if they chose a tech career?

There are some initiatives like this already underway but for the moment are fairly limited. According to our Big Data League survey from September 2014, 17 per cent of Scottish businesses who responded were already offering data science apprenticeships. I hope more will follow with even broader tech job opportunities and apprenticeships.

There are seeds of progress being sown. There are now 2,447 “coding clubs” across the UK, teaching over 34,000 children aged just 9-11 how to program by creating websites, computer games and animations. We host Coderdojo at our Livingston office once a month. Code Club – run by a network of volunteers – aims to put a club in every primary school in the country. What a brilliant ambition.

Scotland’s first dedicated software skills academy, CodeClan, is launching in Edinburgh with the aim of helping to address the national shortage of software developers. It will be managed by ScotlandIS in partnership with Skills Development Scotland and will run short courses to help talented students break into the industry. This is exactly the kind of thing we need more of.

Perhaps to attract more young people, we also need to shout more about how lucrative our sector is. Tech jobs offer a salary around 50 per cent higher than the national average. The 2014 Office for National Statistics annual salary survey might be a surprising read for some. IT and telecoms directors took fifth place in the league table of highest earners, with an average annual salary of £80,215. IT specialist managers came in at a respectable £49,194, and non-managerial IT and telecoms professionals earned an average of £40,957 – higher than many careers traditionally considered to be well paid, such as dentists (£40,054), chartered accountants (£38,092) and vets (£37,763).

We need to let potential students know that great jobs are there waiting for suitably qualified candidates. Predictions suggest that Scotland’s digital sector needs around 11,000 entrants per year, with growth predominantly in the high-skill, high-value areas of managerial, professional and technical occupations.

So if you want to walk into a well-paid, exciting job after your studies, in an industry where you’ll never get bored because there will always be something new to learn, then technology might just be the ideal career for you. Let’s get that message out there.

Martin Brown is Scottish country manager at IT group EMC