The UK tech sector has a skills gap problem – here’s how we can fix it

It’s no secret that the tech sector, and in particular the UK tech sector, has a skills gap. Demand completely outstrips supply, and there’s a worry that we’ll never be able to plug the ever-widening hole within the industry. And the problem could only get worse if the worst Brexit prophecies come to pass.

A new study from the tech job marketplace Hired entitled “Mind the Gap” has highlighted a handful of trends about the UK tech sector, some more worrying than others. For instance, it’s clear there’s a growing concern around a lack of skilled workers with knowledge of Python, Ruby, UIs, UX, data and security. There’s also a worry about just how big an impact Brexit will have on the tech industry and the potential brain drain of talent emigrating to the US, where developers are paid far more than they are on British soil. The report also raises the growing number of tech workers who lack formal qualifications, as many young coders opt to teach themselves.

hired_uk_startup_sophie_adelmanSophie Adelman – GM, Hired UK

To wrap my head around the mind-boggling amount of information Hired uncovered, I met with Hired’s UK GM Sophie Adelman to hear her views on what these findings really mean. Thankfully, there is definitely still hope for the UK’s tech industry.

“We’ve been in the UK for 18 months now and one of the things we’ve been able to see over that time is the difference in supply and demand in terms of roles and skills,” explains Adelman when I ask her just why Hired has decided to delve into what makes the UK tech industry tick. “We wanted to get under the skin of the tech industry and understand what skills were available, what that talent pool looks like and whether or not that skill need is going to be matched”.

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So, first things first, what will Brexit do to the UK’s tech sector? According to the “Mind the Gap” report, which was formed from first-hand data gleaned from 225 participating companies and 2,000 job applications, one in three people working in the UK tech sector come from another European country. To date, Britain’s tech sector has been dependent on attracting these highly skilled workers to supplement the UK’s own talent. If we want to stay on top, we need to make sure British-based companies still have access to this talent even in a post-Brexit society.

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“I think the UK government will do everything within its power to make sure we can still continue to attract the best talent, globally,” explains Adelman. “In a post-Brexit Britain, a lot of companies in the UK are looking to hire the best talent from wherever they are in the world. We have to make sure that door remains open to ensure top talent continues to come to the UK.”

While Brexit could drain the UK of European tech talent, the report also highlights that US developers are paid up to 38% more for the same job as their UK counterparts. Combine these two factors and you’re doubly squeezed, with local talent leaving and new talent being blocked. Adelman doesn’t think it’s that simple: in fact, she believes this pay gap is a great thing for the UK tech industry.

“There’s always been a desire for UK and European developers to move to the West Coast. I think, what’s interesting [about what the report shows] is that, if I’m a US tech company… I’m thinking ‘where else can I go and get the top talent and not pay as much?’ Well, there’s a huge pool of UK and European developers who are actually much cheaper, but just as skilled.

“[Hired’s head office] is based out in San Francisco, so I know exactly how much our developers are paid – and they are very well paid. This is because there’s so much demand and the supply/demand balance is weighted towards the developers.”

UK workers are no less skilled than their US counterparts, but it seems one of the major factors the pay gap exists is due to sheer bullishness.

“I’d love to say I know the reason. I think there are a number of factors. Maybe people don’t really understand how valuable these developers are – although, everyone does realise they need to hire great developers and they know how difficult they are to find.”

Adelman believes that developers tend to undersell themselves, with many asking for the salary they need, rather than the one they could get. In the US, this is less of an issue as many tech workers based in big tech cities are aware of their scarcity and so push harder.

“[Developers] are asking for what they need, rather than what they could get. In markets like San Francisco, where they’re aware of their scarcity and their value, they are pushing for the higher and higher salaries.”

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The report also highlights the growing lack of formal qualifications among younger developers. While Adelman thinks a lack of formal qualifications could be creating a perceived skills gap, she also thinks it’s a little difficult to tell. In fact, it’s clear that having a formal education is essential for those just starting out in their tech careers.

“If they can’t go and read a GitHub repository and analyse the code, how are they meant to differentiate?”

“[Junior candidates are] far more likely to get hired if they have a degree. Once somebody has a certain level of experience, nobody really cares. From what we’ve seen, and what the data shows us, having formal education is important to a lot of employers. It’s just a way for them to filter and differentiate.

“In a lot of companies, the people actually doing the recruitment aren’t developers. [A formal degree] is a way for them to quickly see a signal. If they can’t go and read a GitHub repository and analyse the code, how are they meant to differentiate?”

It seems this sentiment is echoed by company CTOs. According to Adelman, there’s a desire to hire people who never want to stop learning, and those tend to be the people who have been through higher formal education.

“One thing they do say is that somebody who has a degree and who has been taught to think about the theoretical side of programming… they think in that way. It’s another reason for hiring someone with a degree.

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“However, there’s a skills gap. So increasingly people are going to have to look for candidates who come through non-traditional routes, be it via Makers Academy, Coded –it’ll just be a little harder for those candidates versus [those with] traditional degrees.”

Mind the Gap also highlights a worrying drop in interest in STEM subjects. In fact, while 74% of tech workers have a degree – a much higher proportion of the national average – the number of UK students graduating with computer science qualifications has dropped considerably since 2002.

“The challenge the UK education system has is educating young people about the opportunities they could have. I think career education needs improving and, if you’re a top student trying to think about what to do next, going into finance, law or consulting might be initially more attractive because financially it’s going to pay more in the long-term.

While the report looks primarily at how general numbers of STEM students have dropped, it’s no secret that young women are quickly losing interest in those subjects.“When it comes to the issue of gender, I just think we need to do more to make development and programming more exciting for young women. Some of that is around the culture of the industry – I know in San Francisco they often talk about ‘bro culture’, but I don’t think we have that in the UK.”

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If it’s not the idea of a boy’s club that could be putting off young women from taking STEM subjects, what could it be? “There is definitely this idea that being a developer means you have to be more nerdy,” Adelman continues. “I don’t think that’s true at all… getting that across to young women early on in their academic career – the idea that you don’t actually have to fit into a particular pigeon hole to be a developer – is key. All you have to be is excited about problem solving and building stuff. It could be a really interesting opportunity.”

Even if children don’t see a career in technology or STEM as being something for them, it’s really just about making sure they’re given the opportunity to see its potential from an early age. “While the report focuses specifically on skills where gaps lie – data science. UX/UI, coding skills for Python and Ruby – getting people excited about digital skills generally is a key thing the UK needs to do.”

Children are the future, and it’s up to us to ensure they match up to the changing needs of our society. A thriving tech industry seems vital to Britain, so taking these points on board seems like a no-brainer. The actual specifics will be harder to pin down, however.

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