Boris Johnson hasn’t been coy about his plans to make London the tech capital of the world, but the city’s place on the IT world map is not assured – with a lack of investment largely to blame. The statistics are somewhat sobering: a report by GfK last year found that 77% of London tech businesses said that if more skilled people were available, they would grow more quickly.
Although demand for skills such as C#, .NET and other programming languages was consistent during the recession, we have noted a marked increase since the start of this year.
For the UK to take advantage of its potential and fulfil the London mayor’s ambitions, we need to invest in the next generation of IT talent to ensure we have the workforce to deliver success. What steps should be taken to ensure supply meets demand?
Given the fast-moving nature of IT, technology companies need to be more involved in shaping the direction of learning. Ultimately, this will be to their own benefit because education will turn out young people with better-quality skills and experience, which are more aligned to business requirements.
Also, in line with recent Department of Education plans, we found that 56% of technology professionals believe programming should be integrated into the curriculum for secondary education from 2015 onwards, and 86% think primary school age is an appropriate time to introduce children to computing in general.
Improving perception of a career in IT
It is also crucial for students to have a better understanding of what a career in IT means. The numbers of graduates taking IT at degree level has declined. We think this is largely due to a perception among young people that a career in IT is dull.
But a career in IT is akin to the technologies, devices and social networks that this group are, arguably, most accustomed to. There is certainly an opportunity for technology firms to do more to attract young people into the industry and raise awareness of the career options that IT delivers.
More vocational training
The other solution is for businesses to become more willing to take on candidates and train them up to meet business requirements. Some 60% of technology professionals have told us that degrees alone are not enough to help jobseekers break into the IT industry, and 76% felt vocational training courses were a worthy alternative. Some organisations have been making a real difference. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, creator of the super-cheap Raspberry Pi computer, has been helping to re-popularise programming in the UK in the way the Sinclair Spectrum and BBC Micro did in the 1980s.
Google has also rolled out specialist tech teachers to help schools across England enhance their IT curriculum, and EE recently announced ‘techy tea parties’ to help upskill our young people.
Fast-tracking women, and visas for technology experts
It could also be said that London is under-utilising a vast source of talent: women. A report released this month by internet company Nominet found that increasing the number of women working in IT to meet the skills shortage could generate an extra £2.6bn a year for the UK economy.
Women currently make up less than one-fifth of the UK's IT workforce, and a key factor here is low female participation in IT education at school. Further statistics show that only one-third of ICT A-level students and less than one-tenth of computer studies A-level students are female. These figures desperately need to be improved for London to sustain tech growth.
Along with increasing the IT participation of women, it is important for London to have access to the best and brightest talent inside and outside the EU. David Cameron’s announcement in December of fast-tracked visas for world-class technology experts was a step in the right direction.
London has so much to offer the global tech community, but it is dangerously complacent to assume that its title as Europe’s Silicon Valley is guaranteed. Paris, Berlin and even Tel Aviv, on the very fringes of the continent, are strong competitors. The city’s tech future depends on being honest about London’s weaknesses as well as celebrating its strengths, and addressing them accordingly.
Making the most of London’s thirst for tech skills
How should people working in IT capitalise on unprecedented demand for talented tech pros? Many of the jobs available are at startup firms where, unsurprisingly, being able to act independently and think creatively is key. Starting a blog to showcase your opinions shows initiative in itself, and has the dual benefit of giving potential employers, trawling the web looking for IT talent, insight into your critical thinking and ability to communicate. And if they haven’t found you by the interview, it’s certainly not a bad thing to bring up.
Richard Nott is director of IT jobs specialist CWJobs.co.uk