Tech businesses need to think of skills quality in addition to availability

The tech sector across the UK is experiencing its biggest skills shortage in more than a decade. And the continuing success of Leeds in attracting major players and businesses such as Channel 4 to the region is set to add to the pressure.

Sarah Pawson, managing director of Leeds-based recruiter Fruition IT, said: “The arrival of new organisations and growth of existing ones is brilliant for the area, but with this comes increase demand for talent, in many areas with skills shortages.”

Julian Wells, Leeds-based director at the Fintech North organisation, added that businesses in the region are already fighting over the best talent. He adds: “It’s not unique to the North, it is a national thing.”

He also points out that it is a quality as well as a quantity challenge and warned: “It is not going to get any easier in the short term.”

Wells said: “We need to get universities working closely with businesses and to build a skills base that is more compatible with the economy. The way to solve the problem is from the bottom up, to look at schools and university as the starting point.”

He points to the Fintech for Schools initiative. Created by Innovate Finance, its aim is to inspire the next generation of leaders in the sector and raise young people’s ambitions for innovation in financial services.

Mel Kanarek, director of Sheffield Digital, said: “We are no different to other tech clusters around the country – our biggest challenge is finding enough talent to fill current vacancies and also to make sure that we have a strong pipeline of talent for the future.

“Sheffield Digital is working closely with both of the city’s universities, the Sheffield College, both UTCs and the local authority’s education department to find ways to encourage more people of all ages and backgrounds to explore the opportunities offered by a career in the sector.

“There are a growing number of tech sector apprenticeships and a local entrepreneur recently launched the ‘Developer Academy’ to provide affordable, fast training for people who want to get into the sector.”

James Hawkins, NHS digital director of strategy, said the challenge for his organisation is attracting talented specialists to come and work for it. To address that it is working hard to “nurture” its own experts right at the start of their careers.

And that also involves collaborating closely with the region’s universities to attract “the best and the brightest talent out there to a technology-driven career in the NHS”.

Suzy Foster is chief executive of Yeadon-based EMIS Health. She added: “Skills is a major challenge, as it is for any UK-based technology business.

“As well as looking on the open market, we have decided to start ‘growing our own’, with a new apprenticeship programme that encourages employees from other parts of the business to become developers.

“There is a misconception that you need a computer sciences degree to become a successful developer, but you simply need the ability to solve problems and a desire to keep learning.

“We are working with Manchester-based Code Nation to help us up-skill existing employees.”

David Harrison, KPMG’s private sector technology consulting leader, believes the North’s universities are one of its strengths. However, he adds: “There is still a challenge when it comes to the actual skills graduates are coming out with.

“Businesses working with universities will really become key in the next few years.”

Meanwhile, organisers of Leeds Digital Job Fair are working hard to attract young people to tech. This year’s event will take place in October at the First Direct Arena.

Last year’s event attracted 50 local employers including Sky Betting and Gaming, and Jet2holidays, NHS Digital, DWP Digital, Sky and the Royal Air Force.

Recruitment business Herd organises the event and founder Amy De-Balsi believes this year’s fair is “especially timely” with Channel 4 having begun to recruit staff to work in its new national headquarters in the city.

She said: “Channel 4 is already making its presence felt in the city and its recruitment drive has added impetus to the Leeds digital and tech sector which continues to blaze a trail.”