Invest in the UK's IT heartland to secure the future of our digital economy

It’s the first ever London Technology Week this week, an apparent attempt to make tech a part of the capital’s international trendy calendar alongside the likes of London Fashion Week and London Film Festival.

It has certainly grabbed some headlines – when was technology ever the front-page lead of the London Evening Standard? But it has also shot itself in the foot with some rather ambitious claims that struggle to stand up to scrutiny.

Sky News was one of the first to point out that claims about the number of tech jobs created in London were hugely overblown when it broadened “tech” to include anything from TV production companies to PR and marketing agencies.

Similarly, a claim by organisers that London would create 11,000 new tech businesses in the next decade along with 46,000 new jobs, were questioned by some observers due to the paucity of supporting data to back up those numbers.

But in many ways it is never a bad thing to see technology being promoted as essential to the UK’s economic future and job creation. My frustration is that the focus on London, and on the tech startup scene – for all the good things associated with it – miss the real point.

Let’s say that London Technology Week’s figure of 46,000 new digital technology jobs in 10 years is correct.

That means an average of 4,600 jobs a year. That’s a grand total of 0.4% of the IT professionals currently employed in the UK.

According to industry skills body e-Skills UK, we need 129,000 new entrants into IT and telecoms jobs every year, with a growth rate twice the national average. Those 4,600 London startup jobs each year account for just 3.6% of those new roles.

The people who are going to be the core of the digital economy are not working in Tech City startups – much as we need those startups to grow and succeed. The heartland of the UK’s economic future based on technology are the 1.2 million people working as IT professionals in IT departments across the private, public and third sectors and in established IT suppliers.

These are the tech experts that are already revolutionising the high street with multichannel retail systems; putting mobile banking in our pockets; delivering internet connectivity and web sites that occupy more and more of our time and money.

This is where the source of the UK’s digital future lies. But we don’t see them being celebrated, nor do we see politicians keen to associate themselves with the real heartland of UK IT.

Yet it is in this heartland we face the biggest risk to the digital economy – the growing lack of suitable skills and people to support the IT-enabled economy.

There are lots of good initiatives aimed at addressing the skills gap in the long term – overhauling the computing curriculum in schools; encouraging more girls and women to enter IT; and the tech startup scene itself that attracts a younger, funkier, trendier crowd.

But none of those initiatives will bear fruit for 10 years. By that time, if we don’t have the digital skills base the UK needs, most of the growth opportunity of the next decade will already have been lost.

More and more IT leaders are reporting difficulties in attracting talent with the skills they need. One very senior government IT chief told me recently that he has no shortage of CVs on his desk – but from people with old skills in ageing ERP software and such like, that do not meet his needs.

The digital opportunity for the UK is clear to everyone and of interest to everyone – in business, politics and the media, as London Technology Week has demonstrated.

But the problem that needs to be addressed is immediate – the training and re-training of new and existing IT professionals to grow the digital skills of the future.

Once the recession hit, training budgets were the first to go. There seems little evidence they have returned yet. This is the issue the government and big business really need to tackle.

Ironically, it’s government IT that is taking the lead. Recognising the shortage of skills to support its digital by default agenda, even the much-criticised Department for Work and Pensions has taken the initiative, setting up its own Digital Academy to retrain staff. Some local authorities are doing the same.

Business need to put money back into training their IT staff for the future – and government needs to help. Attractive tax breaks for training in digital skills would make a great incentive – and remember too, that it’s not just IT experts that need those skills; digital awareness is going to be vital to every part of the business, from sales to manufacturing to the boardroom itself.

So yes – let’s join in with London Technology Week in celebrating the UK’s digital success stories and promoting the importance of technology to the UK’s economic future.

But let’s also remember that it’s the UK’s existing IT professionals that will secure that digital future, and let’s invest in their future for the sake of our economy.