Tech’s success story magnifies skills challenges

Tech business round table

A worrying shortage of skills in key areas is threatening the future growth of Manchester and the North West’s tech sector, leading industry figures have warned.

And the city region’s continuing success in attracting major players and big businesses is increasing the pressure.

Employers have to be innovative to recruit and retain talent, the Business Desk’s North West tech round table, part of its State of the Region series, heard.

The discussion was held at the offices of law firm Squire Patton Boggs in the heart of Manchester.

Flexible working and creating the right office culture play a big part in recruitment strategies. However salaries are set to play more of a role as competition for talent gets even greater.

Andy Lord, founder of coding school Code Nation, said: “There is a myth it’s easier to find people in Manchester than anywhere else. A lot of big corporates are coming here, part of that is that belief.”

Lord revealed he recently chaired a meeting of recruiters which heard that 340 developers were needed across just 12 businesses.

“If you magnify that for amount of businesses in Manchester, you can see why people get to the point where having a ball pit in the office isn’t going to be enough and cash becomes the attractor.”

He added: “We train people who have no skills and after 12 weeks we give them to employees. We see bidding wars for people who have got 12 weeks’ experience.”

Roger Longden, founder of OKR consultancy There Be Giants, said: “I know of a couple of small software development agencies that have shut up shop because of the talent challenge and the way rates are going up. They ran out of cash even though they had the projects and opportunities.”

Mike Blackburn, managing director of digital marketing agency I-COM said the main challenge was filling technical roles, such as coding. He added: “They are the hard ones to find.”

Will Clark, fund principal at Mercia Technologies, asked: “Are there those in the room that are looking at off shoring and near shoring as a way to top up talent pools?”

Some businesses are making those moves as they looked to find ways to overcome skills shortages and meet clients’ needs.

Conor Parsons, CFO of fintex company Planixs, said the North West had talent challenges but the situation was still worse in the capital.

He said: “I moved up from London for this role where it is much more intense. The business I was with was recruiting software talent for six months and then they’d go. It is a costly way to do business.”

Tech businesses in the region are working hard to attract people and once they are recruited, to keep them.

Ben Davies, marketing manager at social media business Social Change, said initiatives it had used to attract and retain staff included offering unlimited holidays, employees being able to write their own contracts and decide their hours and access to mortgage advice.

He said: “We work really hard at our profile, we realise that from an employer brand point of view that is critical.

“However, a slide in the office does not a culture make. It is about what it represents. You can do gimmicks; it is more about a holistic view. It’s not just the shiny stuff it is the stuff behind it that matters.”

James Doggart, chief executive of Cloud Technology Solutions, said creating a “shared vision” was vital. “You have to share it and you have to be very transparent. We don’t sugar coat the struggles and we are open about success.”

He added: “There’s gravity about Manchester that is pulling in talent from the whole of the North West. The pull is getting bigger.”

Rob Snelson, chief technology officer at Travel Counsellors, also believes in the importance of transparency.

He said everyone in the organisation saw bookings that had been made. “They have ownership and see the results, which is really important. They feel the success of a large booking.”

Flexible working is also an increasing expectation of young people moving from university into work, according to Alex Wignall, senior account manager at Big Partnership.

He said: “You don’t have to be in the office for nine o’clock every single day. Growing numbers of people are used to working remotely. The trend is going that way and that will help businesses in attracting talent.”

Daniel Martin, director at challenger bank OakNorth, agreed. He said: “People accept flexibility. Social media is always switched on and millennials will expect it.”

Having a “flat organisation” and giving people an understanding of every side of a business is important when it comes to attracting good people, he added. “You feel you are involved in a journey.”

David Harrison at KPMG added: “People want flexibility but they want a sense of community as well. People who feel part of that are energised. They key thing is building something people feel part of.”

Meeting the skills challenge has to start with schools, according to John Bowers, managing director at UKFast.

He said: “Schools aren’t teaching creativity at all, they are actually starving creativity. We need subjects that don’t have a right or wrong answer, the ability to try something and fail and try something again.”

Roger Longden agreed, citing one school where 13-14 year olds considering their course options were not offered anything business related as a subject. “I was stunned, he added.

Dr Shanta Aphale, business engagement manager at the University of Manchester, said: “We are really keen that our graduates are work ready and have the relevant skills. We work with employers to understand what they need.

“We work on the soft skills, things like picking up the phone, how to relate to people, how to manage a budget.”

James Fitzgibbon, partner at Squire Paton Boggs, opened the round table, held at its offices in Manchester’s Spinningfields. He said it was important for the tech sector to come together to talk about its challenges.