Why public sector is losing the war for tech talent

The problem the public sector faces is not how to transform to a digital government, but how to find the people to help do this

The problem the public sector faces is not how to transform to digital government, but how to find the people to help do this.

Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle and shadow minister for business, innovation and skills, said in a recent article that the public sector has a lot to offer job candidates that the private sector does not. Things like “the opportunity to build services that improve people’s lives to the same extent as, say, services that improve people’s employment prospects, social care, health care or housing”. A compelling point, I am sure you will agree.

However, there are more jobs in the technology industry than there are people to do them.

As is so often the case, the “war for talent” has become a catchphrase and has lost its gravitas but, believe me, it is a serious problem. The problems the public sector faces when seeking new talent can be broken down into three main areas.

First, the “home-grown talent pipeline” – it is impossible to discuss the war for talent without mentioning a fundamental root cause of the problem. The UK is, at a very basic level, not producing enough people with computer science-related degrees or, for that matter, the essential knowledge – since certification is often irrelevant when it comes to technical skill – to do the jobs that exist here.

There is a fundamental issue with the perception of technology in the UK which has resulted in a concerning lack of students pursuing it and therefore graduates entering the job market. The few that do study technology-related subjects at university are heavily targeted by employers and often end up signing contracts well before they graduate.

The second and possibly most important factor is the international candidate pool. Three to four years ago, the UK lost its “pull factors” for attracting skilled workers from abroad to technology jobs here.

When I was beginning my career as a technology recruitment consultant, we used to place a huge number of people from overseas into jobs across the UK. There were crowds of highly skilled migrants coming to the UK to work, bringing top-of-the-range technology skills with them. 

In particular, large numbers of English-speaking migrants (Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans) would fill the technology talent void left by the lack of computer scientists coming out of our universities. 

However, in 2010 one of our new prime minister’s first acts was to change the immigration policy and put a cap on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the UK each year. Now the subject of visas is highly complex and filled with political nonsense, but, in simple terms, the government placed a cap of 21,700 on the number of skilled immigrants allowed into the country each year, despite the recommendation by the Migration Advisory Committee that the number should be 44,000. 

The government allows only 1,000 people to come in on tier 1 visas and the rest on tier 2, which are much less attractive to employers. The tier 1 visa is granted for “highly skilled” people and, before this cap, was what technologists used to come into the UK, with no issues for employers.

Random number

This change was significant because it bore no relation to the number of open positions in the country; it was, as far as we can tell, a random number of 21,700, representing less than half the number recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee. It should also be noted that this was changed at exactly the same time as the prime minister announced the launch of Tech City to encourage start-ups to open in London, creating new jobs.

In that year, 2010, the pound was very weak and continued to be so until early 2013. So, in simple terms, the government, in one fell swoop, managed to completely remove any incentives people had to come and work in the UK, ironically at the same time as encouraging the creation of new jobs in technology.

The third reason the public sector will struggle to find the talent it needs is the effect the first two factors have had on the UK technology jobs market.

This lack of talent manifests itself in many ways – all of which hold our collective technological advancement back. The war for talent has led to businesses paying hugely inflated salaries and rates for the best technologists. It is not unusual for a good candidate with highly sought-after skills to go from application to six or seven job offers within a couple of weeks, with the interested businesses ending up in a bidding war to secure that individual. 

Examples of candidates getting pay rises of £20-40,000 when they move jobs are everywhere. Inevitably, this leads to a very fluid market, where people move jobs very regularly (often every 12-24 months).

Many businesses are having to change their growth plans to accommodate the fact that they will not be able to get staff on board in time to deliver their projects. Scaled up, the effect this could have on the overall growth of UK technology is alarming.

Offshore solutions

More and more businesses are turning to offshore solutions to solve the absence of talent, with many businesses using centres in Asia and, increasingly, eastern Europe.

Headhunting, an activity that was historically used only to find and attract people at executive level and above, has become commonplace among graduate technologists, leading to businesses being unable to plan and execute any kind of roadmap.

For the public sector, this drain means that attracting candidates to work in their teams is extremely challenging. When people are getting six or seven job offers, three or four of which they would be willing to accept, what would make them choose a, generally, less well-paid job over one that is of equal interest but pays better? Is the public sector proposition of building services that are integral to people’s lives enough to attract and retain the best technologists out there?

The lack of supply and high demand for talent in the public sector is a genuine concern. Given the scale of the digital transformation project planned by the sector, I would suggest it is enough of a concern to rethink how it plans to deliver it. It may, just like so many businesses have had to, think seriously about outsourcing it.


Harry Gooding is head of client engagement at Mortimer Spinks.

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