Addressing key challenges to help future-proof the UK's digital industry

A recent report has suggested that the UK digital sector is worth £100 billion to the economy. An abundance of creative entrepreneurs coupled with a strong education system and a global outlook have contributed to this success.

With new start-ups springing up all the time, the sector has the potential to become even more prosperous. However, new government legislation which is in the pipe-line and a growing concern over skills shortages has cast a shadow over the sector’s ability to maintain this growth.

It was revealed during the Queen’s Speech on 27 May 2015 that a new Government bill entitled the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’ would help to ‘modernise law on communication data’. Although the bill is currently in development, businesses within the digital and tech sectors have raised concerns over what the new legislation could mean for business.

It is expected that the bill will give the Government new authoritative powers over data retention and access to encrypted communications. This could mean that internet service providers and telecommunications companies could soon be legally obliged to hand over all manner of user information such as browsing activity, social media posts, emails, telephone calls and texts. For tech businesses, this could mean that all day-to-day operations could be monitored – meaning companies would no longer be able to assure customers that their data is completely secure and protected.

As of yet the Government has not confirmed or denied that this new legislation is to be passed, but for UK tech businesses that develop solutions dependent upon secure communication, these are worrying times.

Some companies are so concerned about the potentially detrimental effects of the bill they have made the decision to move their headquarters abroad. Eris Industries and Ind.ie are examples of tech businesses that have already left the UK in an attempt to protect their customer’s data from prying eyes. It is a concern that in the next few years more companies could follow suit; this would have negative implications for the entire economy as millions of pounds in corporate tax could be lost, in addition to associated job losses. To prevent this from happening, the tech industry must lobby the Government so it fully understands the implications of passing the bill.

Another problem the sector currently faces is a growing shortage of workers that possess digital skills; the passing of the Investigative Powers Bill could further exacerbate this problem as skilled digital workers that do not agree with a culture of surveillance could begin to look elsewhere for work.

Addressing the skills shortage

A 2015 TechCityUK report found that the UK tech sector has experienced phenomenal growth, with 1.4 million people now employed in digital roles across the country. Another report has found that London is home to Europe’s fastest growing tech hub, with 27 per cent of all job growth in London generated by the tech and digital sectors. However, the problem the industry now faces is that technological advancements have led to the creation of completely new roles that require specialist skills; the sector is growing at such a rate that at present there is a distinct lack of workers with the vital skills needed to fill these job vacancies. A study carried out by O2 in 2013 suggested that in order to maintain its growth, the sector would need an additional 750,000 skilled workers by 2017.

So what can be done to ensure that enough skilled workers are able to fill the roles required?

To meet this demand the country needs to ensure it is doing enough to encourage young people to engage with digital and have access to the necessary training, resources and knowledge. It seems that the Government has begun to recognise this need and has introduced a computing A-Level and there is an abundance of digital courses at universities to get young people proficient in digital at a young age.

In addition to the introduction of compulsory digital learning in the curriculum, a whole host of after-school clubs and professional training companies such as General Assembly, Decoded and Code Club are working hard to plug the skills shortage by setting up independent groups to engage with young people.

Rather than just relying on the education system to lessen the sizeable skills shortage, businesses are also taking matters into their own hands by developing skills from within. Many tech firms have now begun to invest in courses that allow organisations to train new employees themselves and decide exactly what is being taught. Web-based programmes also allow employees to learn online in their own time.

To remain at the forefront of the digital revolution, the tech sector must work together to make sure that the Government understands the industry’s point of view and really grasps the detrimental effect the Investigatory Powers Bill could have for UK businesses. It must also continue to work with education providers to encourage young people to get engaged with digital to address the skills shortage.

Confronting these problems will not just help the digital and tech industries, but will help the UK economy as a whole, as it will encourage more entrepreneurs to start-up in the industry and will inspire more young people to pursue digital careers.

Howard Jackson, CEO of HCSS Education