Powering up Scotland's digital tech skills base

From video games and app development to life sciences and fintech, Scotland's digital economy is riding something of a high.

Polly Purvis, chief executive of ScotlandIS, says the tech industry must harness current opportunities. Picture: Chris Watt

Hard evidence of its importance to the nation’s well-being has emerged in a new report, which also doesn’t shy away from the many challenges facing the sector.

According to research commissioned by the Digital Technologies Skills Group – a Scottish Government-backed initiative – the country’s digital technology businesses directly employ 60,100 people, while 91,600 people are now employed in digital tech roles across all sectors.

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With more than half of these digital technologies professionals employed in sectors traditionally seen as non-tech such as financial services, it demonstrates the key role technology plays across all parts of the Scottish economy.

Meanwhile, the number of estimated annual job opportunities has risen to 12,800 – up 16 per cent from a previous forecast.

The study also reveals that the average full-time salary in the digital technologies sector has increased to £37,400 from £28,000 in 2010, showing stronger growth than median full-time salaries in Scotland over the same period – up by 12 per cent.

The preliminary findings were released at an event in Edinburgh ahead of a full report due to be published next month. More than 100 representatives from industry, the public sector and education attended the conference, staged by Skills Development Scotland, in an effort to explore the demand for technology skills and study the initiatives already underway north of the Border.

Those programmes include work-based learning opportunities, the Digital Xtra Fund for extracurricular computing activities, engagement with schools through Developing the Young Workforce, e-Placement Scotland, digital skills academy CodeClan, and the Digital World careers campaign.

Unveiling the findings, Polly Purvis, chief executive of technology trade body ScotlandIS and a member of the Digital Technologies Skills Group, said: “This is a significant moment for the digital technologies industry.

“It is important that we harness current opportunities so that the sector can continue to contribute to Scotland’s economic prosperity.

“We must respond collectively to the skills challenge to ensure we have the right people with the right skills to support this growth. A number of brilliant initiatives are already underway across Scotland and they show we can achieve more when we work together as an industry.”

There are many pathways into jobs in the digital technologies sector including the 4,000 or so graduates which come through university computer science courses each year, the 9,300 annual full and part-time college enrolments in ICT and computing, and the 950 annual digital technology modern apprentice starts. These traditional entry routes are also complemented by alternatives such as the recent launch of two graduate level apprenticeship pathways.

The research found that there is also a “hidden talent” pipeline. For example, 31 per cent of graduates entering the digital technologies sector come from non-computing science backgrounds such as creative arts and design, business, and physical sciences, highlighting the importance of transferable skills.

Delivering an address at the event, minister for employability and training Jamie Hepburn said: “Digital skills are not only essential to our inclusive growth – they are vital to economic development, internationalisation and innovation.

“We recognise that even with over 90,000 people working in digital technology roles across Scotland, businesses are still struggling to recruit staff with the digital skills that can help them to grow.

“The Scottish Government is committed to reducing the digital skills gap across all sectors in Scotland and the work of the digital skills partnership is a great example of how we can achieve this.”

Respondents were generally positive about market conditions and there is likely to be strong demand for skills over the next year with two-thirds of employers expecting to increase their staff. Employers said they want technical skills and transferable skills that allow people to be trained on the job.

In terms of specific disciplines, programming and cyber security skills were found to be highly sought after, along with data analytics and computational skills.

The rapid pace of change in the digital world and its impact on technology and non-technology staff means that up-skilling and re-skilling have become key priorities.

A careers campaign for Scotland’s digital technologies sector has been set up at www.digitalworld.net