UK will lose without a new approach in the global race for digital talent

More than three-quarters of UK organisations are experiencing challenges in recruiting people with digital skills, according to research from Deloitte. It’s a shocking figure, but is anyone really surprised?

“The skills shortage” has been a trope of tech news headlines for 20 years – the skills for which we are short might have changed, but the UK IT sector has carried on regardless and isn’t doing too badly. So is it really such a problem?

Plenty of cynics would say it’s not, but the reality on the ground for IT leaders suggests otherwise. When Computer Weekly asks CIOs what is their biggest challenge, it’s almost always related to a lack of available talent with the skills they need for digital transformation.

Maybe 20 years ago the lack of skills related to SAP or Oracle products, as companies rolled out finance and business management software – there’s no shortage in those areas any more. But generally, it was only larger organisations affected.

In our fast-developing digital economy, the new skills needed are in demand from organisations large and small, in the private or public sectors. Every company and government body needs to change to take advantage of internet technologies.

As we have catalogued in Computer Weekly on many occasions, the UK education and training system simply does not produce enough people to meet IT’s demand. Meanwhile, the government seems intent on making it harder to attract top overseas talent to help fill the gaps.

Thousands of people eligible for skilled visas in the UK are being refused entry due to government immigration caps. Between December 2017 and March 2018, around 3,500 of the 6,080 Tier 2 visas refused were for people skilled in science, technology, engineering and maths, with 1,226 of the refusals affecting IT roles. It’s also harder to get student visas, sending enthusiastic youngsters elsewhere. Let’s not forget the Brexit effect too.

There’s a global war for top technology talent, and without a change in approach, the UK is going to be on the losing side. Look at Canada, for example, where the government is working to promote its tech sector and recognises the need to import the best people. Anyone with the requisite tech skills and a job earning at least C$80,000 can get a work visa in just two weeks, and the government is offering generous tax credits to fund up to 50% of salary for jobs in research and development.

Canada’s liberal immigration regime is a counterpoint to its nearest neighbour, where US president Donald Trump’s belligerent approach is preventing some foreign IT workers entering the country. Canada hopes to benefit – Seattle-based Microsoft and Amazon, for example, are setting up development centres in Vancouver, a short hop across the border, to house imported skills there instead.

“Canada’s comparatively open attitude towards immigration and attracting talent is a real strength that the UK should look to as a model,” says Thomas Goldsmith, policy manager for Brexit and trade at UK IT trade body TechUK.

“The UK should be keenly aware that there is a global marketplace for in-demand digital skills, and if these workers find it difficult to secure a UK visa or they if they are made to feel unwelcome, then there will be no shortage of countries holding their arms open to them instead.”

Deloitte’s research also shows that UK organisations want to increase their investment in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, internet of things and virtual reality. Firms can see the opportunity – they just can’t find the talent to make it happen. The UK’s digital economy is under threat until the skills gap is addressed.

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