UK employers need a level playing field when it comes to skills

At the first meeting of the new Digital Policy Alliance skills group it was agreed that, rather than try  to agree a  collective submission to the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee we should encourage all member to make their own and that I should make a personal submission using the material I have on file, including from previous EURIM (now DPA) exercises. I have now done so, using material from the interdepartmental working group of the Department of Education and the Science and the Ministry of Technology (set up in 1965) onwards. In 1967 they recommended the establishment of a “National Computing Centre” to address the expected shortage of systems analysts by 1970. In the mid 1980s the then Director of the NCC enveigled me into spending five fascinating, but ultimately futile, years finding solutions to to the problems of the day. I think we found them. But they were unacceptable to officials and ignored.
Over the past couple of weeks it has been interesting to note how much and how little we have progress since then.

I had always known that our tax regime put UK employers and contractors at a disadvantage against their overseas competitors but until I checked some of the current HMRC small print I had not realised how serious that could be. One example is the apparent exemption from national insurance for up to a year for those employed by contractors back home in Brazil, India, Russia or the Ukraine. More generally accommodation and travel expense allowances subject to income tax for uK employees are often similarly exempt. Then there is the comparative tax position of spend on training and career development, whether funded by the employer or by indviduals seeking to reskill themselves.     

The summary of my submission is as follows:

1.             There have been regular enquiries into shortages of what we now call “digital skills” for almost 50 years. The underlying cyclical pattern was identified in the 1980s. Recession accelerates the decline in demand for old skills and delays investment in training for the new skills that are taking their place. Recovery sees a “crisis” and another round of studies. No amount of effort in “trying to predict the unpredictable” in order to better target vocational education, will bring about significant change unless we better reward employers who recruit trainees and retrain existing staff more than those who compete for staff trained by their customers or competitors, import supposedly skilled staff or export jobs.


2.             It is currently more economic for many UK employers to compete for skilled staff or import from overseas, rather than train their own. This problem will not be addressed until we level the playing field between those who recruit trainees and retrain existing staff and those who import supposedly skilled “contractors”. Some of the latter can be paid tax free allowances for travel and accommodation and exempted from national insurance up to year. This can enable employers to save 50% (sometimes even more) compared to UK staff or contractors with equivalent take-home (after tax and expenses) earnings.


3.             We need to copy our overseas competitors in exempting employees following professionally and technically accredited training programmes from income and payroll (c.f. National Insurance) taxes and allowing individuals acquiring new skills, not essential to their current jobs, to offset the cost against current and future earnings. We also need the same tax and expenses regime for imported staff and contractors as for their UK counterparts. The changes needed also include addressing how IR35  penalises those seeking to keep abreast of changing demand for skills.


4.             When seeking to predict skills needs, we need to distinguish between core disciplines (which change slowly, if at all, over time) and technology, product and service technology related skills where demand can change before the curriculum, let alone content, is agreed.


5.             We also need to find better ways of relating publicly funded and accredited qualifications and courses to current and emerging skills needs and employers’ recruitment and training plans, without overloading those who do seek to plan ahead with “consultations” asking questions they cannot answer. The solution entails pooling budgets for demand assessment and forecasting via, for example, consortia of Sector Skills Councils and LEPs, to enable the use of industry strength market research


6.             Few employers can forecast their needs more than a year ahead in the detail needed to plan conventional courses and qualifications. Those able to do so commonly wish to mix and match modules for just-in-time delivery (to meet immediate skills needs) with those for longer term career development across academic and professional disciplines. This presents challenges to colleges, universities and funding agencies. Those willing and able to respond can derive significant earnings from the delivery of short course modules (both residential and on-line) within the global apprenticeship and continuous professional development programmes of major engineering and financial services employers. They are alleged, however, to be actively discouraged by funding councils from doing so.  

I thought of posting the full submission but it is 11 pages and my blogs are usually far too long anyway. 

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I have just completed by first draft of my submission so in less than 3 pages here it is! Feed back open for 24 hours for feed back before I submit!

Focus of this submission is to help position what “digital” actually is as both a user and creator and what skills are required. This based upon knowledge of the future of Enterprise Software based upon R&D of over 20 years.


1. “Digital by default” has been a much hyped often confusing term used by Government to try place emphasis on the need to become both more efficient and allow the citizen to be involved in “self help”. The initial emphasis has been on building information web pages to both try and simplify information and create one source of access for the public use. This has largely achieved objectives as a basic “digital requirement”. However building “digital services” is a whole different game as it is actually about “business operations”. This requires the real time back office connectivity to ensure all relevant information is available to allow decision making as users interact.

2. It is important to understand how the supporting software markets works and where it will be heading. First ICT has as the basic level 3 main aspects Infrastructure includes the use of internet, Hardware in use both supporting infrastructure and the users and the Software which delivers required functionality. The infrastructure and Hardware have evolved to the point they are commodities with delivery of new devices in a competitive price driven market. The other relevant aspect of how the software industry has evolved and how it behaves. The big vendors have consolidated and have huge investment in acquired “components” that are integrated under a marketing banner yet are complex to actually see delivery of a software solution. However software needs to reach that point where it becomes “commoditised” yet delivers required the flexibility by removal of technical coding skills in the build.

3. Software is the key to both build and use of digital. It is a harsh reality that despite business logic never changing we still need programming languages that are quite alien to users. As a result the “interpretation gap” between what users want and the technical programmers is as wide as ever. This problem has been recognised for decades yet remains the biggest barrier to delivery of people friendly functionality. This was at the core of 20 years R&D and it was “discovered” that for business requirements (and that include government) the future does not require coding skills with the emphasis switching to understanding the required people process to deliver the required outcome direct from this knowledge.

4. The whole ecosystem of vendors and their associates has thrived at customer expense (Government in particular) with software complexity. Very few business people never mind politicians will dare challenge this abuse as there has been no real alternative. Any move to simplicity is not welcome. It is called the “innovator dilemma” and with domination by big US vendors the required step change has “challenges” but will come and it is this which will change the future of “how” software delivers with the focus on digital support for users. That is what 20 years of R&D have addressed. A R&D paper was published last year for those interested . It is the start of what could be called a 6th Generation Language (6GL). The build of applications currently rely on coders using such as Java and .net as 3GL. 6GL has been a vision for decades but not delivered…until now.

5. The relevance of such a change is significant looking to the very issues being addressed by House of Lords Digital Committee. The Labour party recently sought views on digital by asking some good questions. The Appendix contains my responses which should help understanding. But be aware such knowledge is a moving target and this also applies to skills.

Digital skills for the future

6. With understand as articulated about software “capabilities” the emphasis on skills required changes. Build of digital services will be in the hands of those that understand not just what is required but how it needs to work step by step supporting users internal or external. The tools that deliver such capability remove the need technical programming skills. Nothing is static and change will be driven by users with direct input with new ideas way of delivering a better service. This research gives a view “However, it’s important to keep in mind that while business skills come in handy to establish relevance and prove one’s value, focusing on the right technologies is an even bigger part of the picture – it represents the foundation of the trade. Business skills are only useful when they are wedded to meaningful technology to capitalize upon them. Knowing which trends will take off, gain momentum and become common can future proof an IT career and ensure you stay on top of the game - and stay in demand.”

7. The coder / programmer. By removing need for mass coding of business applications these skills will sit at the very specialised level with focus on highly technical new ideas and products (business logic for “digital” is not in this category!). The term “geek” is often used but they are usually people of exceptional intelligence but often “loners”. They have a passion which is self driven and they will find the route to acquire the skills.

8. The digital application builder. As indicated in the vision of how software will evolve and suggested by the Tech Pro Research is moving to business skills. A basic knowledge of database and spreadsheet type languages will be needed but these basic skills are being taught already but emphasis on having such basic skills can only be good. Those destined for programming hard coding world will be in the minority. In terms of “business” early indoctrination of the basics emphasising the importance of people being supported by “digital” information would be sensible. This can help and set knowledgeable expectations of what may lie ahead for individuals deciding their future.. However fact is nothing beats business experience and interpersonal skills to start the creation of a digital service capability. It is important that the focus is to ensure easy use by “users” in effect the form adapts to that users specific needs and should of course support constant change.

9. The user. Much emphasis on this group has been made associated with “digital by default”. However this has different categories that need to be recognised.

• The current Government emphasis is on the “citizen” as a user and here the User Interface is a “public” form that needs good “design” yet also requires functionality that delivers required data/information and allows input of new information. All of this needs to be “intuitive” entry of new information only once and “friendly”. It must be assumed this user has had no training to use such a form.

• The “in-house” user and this in Government is the professional civil servant who often requires to interact with the public to deliver the service. They will also be the access point to help those unable to be a “public user”. Here “digital” functionality will rule and these users should be directly involved of creation of the digital solution. The user form should follow a logical format and is only part of the end to end process that will involve collaboration with colleagues across government and other agencies with all supporting back office functionality. This is where a well designed “digital” process can greatly improve efficiency and with real time feed back of who did what when, people can become “empowered” with change to the digital solution encouraged. The skill to build requires the “business knowledge of that operational need. It is not technology driven it will be a combination of experience and gaining the confidence of these users whose input is vital. Where there are complex needs unlike the “public user” in house training should be readily available.

• The “management” user needs to recognised where real time reports can be automatically created on both public and internal user activity. Views on activity that identify bottlenecks and problems that may need to be addressed. It should be noted that adopting modern digital software with all required supporting capabilities with that real time feed back will empower people at the frontline and reduce the need for a “heavy” layer of “management”. This booklet is worth of a read for those wishing to understand The title alone makes it clear what the real challenge is!

10 Education on modern management skills linked with experienced business skills will help deliver truly transformational digital services. It is NOT about technology as long as knowledge of capabilities exists. Without good research to establish the capabilities or with reliance of “geeks” and only the “user” form being addressed the optimisation of digital will not be achieved. So the final skill set lies with this knowledge of capability, the business understanding and those that make strategic decisions. All should have basic knowledge and relative skills as described to deliver on digital requirements. It will be a continuous learning process from the basics at school level to the “boss” making the key strategic decisions to set up digital initiatives in the first instance.