According to the Connected Digital Economy Catapult, established by the Government's Technology Strategy Board, the IT, software and digital content sectors are worth £100bn to the UK economy. This is larger per head than any other country in the world and could represent 10 per cent of UK GDP by 2015.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, EU commissioner for technology, Neelie Kroes, said that Europe would have 1m new tech jobs by 2016 and 2m by 2020, with up to a fifth of these in the UK. Worryingly though, IBM's 2012 Tech Trends report found that just 1 in 10 UK organisations believes it has the skills to use advanced technologies, including mobile computing, cloud computing, and social business. Meanwhile, 73 per cent of educators and students said there is a major or moderate gap in their institution’s ability to meet demand for these skills.
PM David Cameron has announced a £50m regeneration of East London’s Old Street tech hub, Silicon Roundabout, which is due for completion in 2016. While this will certainly create an impressive landmark to showcase digital leadership, little commitment has been made to creating a suitably skilled British workforce. And in any event, it may already be too late.
With some of the biggest media companies in the world – the likes of Skype, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and BSkyB – all expanding their mobile operations in London, and each requiring large engineering teams of hundreds of people, the competition is already fierce for mobile talent. Is the UK up to the job?
“Our candidates think mobile is a really interesting opportunity, particularly around M2M and the chance to use mobile technology to make people's lives better, whether that's through medical and health or utility,” said Mark Long, director of future media recruitment company ABRS. “They are in a really good position – everyone from software engineers, UX designers, product managers – across the mobile platform, there are more jobs than candidates. If you've got the skills, there are loads of opportunities – if you're a company trying to build this stuff, there is lots of competition.”
Like the FT, Walmart and Deloitte, Thomson Reuters bought a London-based mobile dev firm, Apsmart, to shore up its mobile capacity. Bob Schukai, head of mobile at Thomson Reuters, says: “It's not uncommon to just buy a mobile development company to take them completely off the market. You might never do anything with the product, you might just be doing it as a talent acquisition. “It used to be about offshore versus inshore – that discussion has changed completely. It's now about outsource versus insource. You can see a decline in numbers in the PC space and with that comes an insatiable demand for mobile talent. That's a capability that companies need to create themselves and be able to instil across their organisation.”
So, does the talent have to be bought or can you help grow it? Raj Day, group CSO for Telefónica in Latin America, was out running while considering his difficulty in finding innovative products, services and different ways of working. There was only one shop for digital innovation – Silicon Valley – and it was not only expensive to hire from but was also eating up some of his own digital talent. He passed an empty shop and thought 'what would happen if we filled that full of startups?'
Three years and 13 countries later, the startup initiative Wayra is now established across Latin America, the US and the EU. Ann Parker heads up EU operations for the accelerator programme, and she says there is an abundance of talent. “The perception I had was that we would struggle to find that kind of talent and people willing to go and work in a startup in London,” she says. “We have found quite the reverse. We get a lot of people who have finished their degree but have decided that the corporate ladder isn't for them. We also get lots of people in their mid-30s. People who've got life experience, who've made a few mistakes. That really helps.”
While Telefónica says it does not intend to take any of the teams that it gives funding to into the business itself, startups like cloud service provider Cloud66 have become preferred partners and in return gain access to more than 300m customers. “If we want digital startups to contribute to the economy, everyone needs to be putting their hands in their pocket,” says Parker. “There's room for us all.”
Eric Van der Kleij, fintech entrepreneur and head of Level39, Tech City's newest accelerator, believes that the financial crisis has given entrepreneurs and big business the opportunity to explore and create new technology together. “London and Europe are facing another challenge in the contraction of the financial services sector, which has previously represented up to 12.9 per cent of GDP if you include IT services,” he says. “It's the innovators in tech and digital and creative that are going to form part of this replacement economic growth. “You can imagine an idea being created at a hackathon that one day goes on to become a substantial banking mechanism for new, open, transparent banking. Now that is being made possible by the talent and by an environment that supports innovation – with a combination of support from organisations and government.”
While this all sounds rather cosy, startups and big businesses are clearly in competition for great graduates. Some see a 'brain drain' as people choose big bucks in the City over the uncertainty of startup life. But Bob Schukai thinks the issue is more fundamental. “Five guys can build a product and beat you to market in a heartbeat. Big business is going to need that technology talent to be successful and compete at an enterprise level as well as at a consumer level. The challenge in the UK, like the US, is that neither are producing enough STEM grads. That's where the real problem is.”
American-born Schukai has gone on record many times arguing that foreign graduates in the US should 'have a green card stapled to their university certificate' and he thinks much the same is required in the UK. “Anybody that graduates with an advanced technology degree should be given indefinite leave to remain in Britain. These are people that are going to be producing, going to be working in high paying jobs, contributing revenue to Inland Revenue.”
Wayra's Ann Parker, however, disagreed with the perception that tech graduates are the only people who can create entrepreneurial success. “Good ideas come from everywhere,” she said, “you don't need to be a computer scientist to have a great idea for a startup and even if you are a great coder – it doesn't mean you will be a successful entrepreneur.”
So if it's skilled digital workers we lack, why do we have an abundance of idle 'digital natives', 1m young people who commentators fear becoming a 'lost generation' excluded from employment into adult life? While 16-24-year-olds are never too far from Blackberry Messenger or Facebook, many, it appears, may not understand the opportunities in emerging technologies; the opportunity to become creators, rather than simply consumers. If you were born in the 1990s, the digital natives rather than older digital immigrants, can you help but take technology for granted?
“'My brother said 'stop being a waster, have a Sinclair ZX81 [released in 1981]', and for the first time I felt completely empowered,” says Van der Kleij. “Today, the mobile phone, and especially the smartphone, has made technology incredibly accessible. So many more people understand how apps can solve problems in life and come up with solutions that previously would have required huge amounts of programming expertise. This exposure could catalyse them into entering the computing profession and maybe getting a computer science degree or even entering IT services.”
With this tech-native generation coming of age in terms of their careers, what does the Government need to do to nurture growth? “The first thing I would say to Government,” Ann Parker at Wayra says, “would be to get more computer programming on the syllabus. People should learn it from age six or seven – do it like speaking French. There also needs to be more work on encouraging more entrepreneurial skills to be taught at school – understanding the concept of cash flow, knowing how much money you have in the bank and not spending more than that.”
A number of organisations already work for free to excite young people about creating the technologies of the future, including Devcamp and Apps for Good. Reuters' Schukai is also a mentor for Apps for Good, where participant schools spend a school term building an app from start to finish, with the winning team going on to have their app made for real. “We think that this can become a feeder for large and small companies across Britain or creating the entrepreneurs of tomorrow,” he says. “We have more than 200 schools and it has become the benchmark programme, but I would love to see more engagement between business and schools.”
There are many online courses, at minimum cost, as well as free resources that offer a real learning opportunity at a fraction of the debt promised by university. But is it too late by then? Courtney Boyd Myers, audience development director at London's General Assembly, a tech education and events business, says businesses must work together with educators to help the education system keep up with the pace of change in the tech, digital and mobile industries. “Business both established and startup need to have the resources and knowledge in place to be continually learning, growing and developing in this space,” she says. “Our opportunity and our challenge is to figure out how we can build businesses that help people connect, increase access to healthcare, education and jobs, and provide an infrastructure to create further new businesses."
So where are these 2m promised jobs of tomorrow going to be? Bob Schukai believes “app exhaustion” may have set in. “But there are other areas that are underexploited, such as health, fitness, and especially education,” he says. “You will see a lot more testing and evaluating jobs that didn't really exist previously. People in the beginning just sort of built stuff and threw it out the door. You've also got to have people who write the automation programs, because the amount and number of mobile products you need to create isn't going down it's going up. Those people are eventually going to become developers themselves.”
So far, £6m was pledged in the Autumn Statement to train 3,000 people in technology roles and after intense pressure from the industry, Michael Gove's controversial EBacc qualification – the education secretary's proposed GCSE replacement – will now contain computer science as a fourth science option. Business and universities will be consulted in the development of the syllabus, Gove has said.
But is this all too little too late in the global tech race? “Some of the most exciting ideas come from innovators who have had no formal training. They are not restricted by the fetters of corporate and traditional education,” said Van der Kleij. “But any investment that we can make in education that is more appropriate to the skills that we need at the moment and that we'll need in the future – any investment that we can make in that is a worthwhile thing to do.”
Written for Mobile Marketing Magazine and first published here: http://www.mobilemarketingmagazine.com/content/job-centre#ZaiA8MTBVxewdhiq.99