Britain hasn’t got talent! Why UK businesses need to address the IT skills shortage before it’s too late

Britain loves an underdog. It’s no secret that the British have a soft spot for watching those who seemingly have little chance of winning rise above expectations. What is surprising, however, is that Britain has found itself as an underdog, lagging doggedly behind global counterparts in more ways than one. 

The UK’s failure to improve gender equality and productivity in the workplace has been well-documented, but it has now been revealed that we’re also struggling to successfully address an IT skills gap; an IT skills gap that, if left unchecked, will see UK businesses falling permanently behind savvier competitors. Other countries are already becoming more productive, agile and accurate thanks to their commitment to understanding the modern technology they have at their disposal. So why aren’t we?

Follow the leader

Brocade’s Digital Transformation Skills Study questioned IT decision makers from businesses with more than 500 employees across six major markets, identifying four different personas of IT leader. Each of these personas demonstrate varying levels of effectiveness when it comes to implementing digital transformation projects and managing the skills of their teams. The least effective persona - skill laggards, a term given to those trailing far behind with technology adoption and skills management – made up 14 per cent of UK respondents, whilst skill leaders, the ‘ideal’ persona that prioritises learning and development, made up only 4 per cent of the UK respondents.

These figures may not look too intimidating at first glance, but they make for worrying reading when compared to other countries. Germany, for example, were 26 per cent leaders and only 2 per cent laggards, and our French counterparts were 18 per cent leaders and 6 per cent laggards. Beyond Europe, the United States had 20 per cent leaders and 3 per cent laggards. Singapore’s leaders stood at 10 per cent, with 4 per cent laggards. 

UK IT leaders and their respective IT departments can ill afford to be in such a compromising situation. Whether its artificial intelligence, cyber security, the Internet of Things, or cloud and datacentre solutions, Britain is in no position to be ignoring or underestimating the latest skills needed to embrace these emerging technologies. Addressing this IT skills gap won’t just be the key to remaining competitive, it will be crucial for business survival. Coming at a time where Britain’s economic and political uncertainty has become a rolling story in itself, British businesses should rightfully feel under pressure to address these issues now before they risk total irrelevance at the hands of their foreign rivals.

What does Brexit actually mean for the IT skills gap?

There has been much speculation and debate regarding Brexit and how Britain’s decision to leave the European Union may impact the economic state of both collective markets. Whether you believe the triggering of Article 50 forecasts ‘stormy seas ahead’ or simply signals safe sailing through calm waters, there is no denying that it has at least created real uncertainty around foreign skills acquisition. Brexit means Brexit, but it also means the nerves of IT leaders are being tested with further worry about the growing skills gap. 

Over half of UK IT leaders are concerned that it will become far more challenging to hire ‘the right staff’ over the next 10 years, with a quarter admitting that changes to immigration or work visa policies will be a contributing factor.

To steady these nerves, UK businesses will need to be prepared to find and train future talent from within. Future-proofing their business through digital transformation will have to be done with staff located close to home.

As a concept, this seems simple enough. But logistically, it is easier said than done and will come with teething issues and growing pains. If the UK is to rely on purely homegrown talent as the answer to the skills gap problem, a monumental shift in the attitudes of British businesses will be needed. Recalibration will be required on how these staff are trained and upskilled.

Take training timelines for example - these will need to be organised far more diligently. When a plan is put together for a strategic IT shift two years in advance of a launch, training and staffing needs to be accommodated for immediately. The average time currently allocated is only thought to be 12 months in advance of a launch. It’s almost an afterthought, and it’s not good enough. This misalignment places undue pressure on senior decision makers to find the right people and develop their training plans in too short a timeframe.  

Professional growth is too often stunted. Some British businesses are habitually denying their IT teams the opportunity for professional growth by not allowing any time for them to update their skillsets inside of work hours. Businesses in Singapore have taken significant steps to introduce their staff to, and update them on, a variety of new technology. If you’re a technology worker in ‘Lion City’, you’re likely spending four hours a week updating your skill set. If you’re a British technology worker, you’re lucky if you get a quarter of that time. 

Play the long game

It’s not too late to address these issues, but that time is fast approaching and businesses will start to lose competitiveness if they don’t act. British businesses need to start recognising these issues for what they are, and be prepared to endure the growing pains that will come with systemic change. It is still sadly commonplace to see businesses struggling on with legacy technology in the workplace, worrying that any new technology implementations will cause too much short-term disruption to their business. 

The irony is that it has bigger implications for them in the long-term, and only becomes more difficult for them to overcome these disadvantages over time. The same is true of the IT skills gap. The longer British IT decision makers make do with avoiding the problem, the worse it will get and the harder it will be to address in the long term. 

British businesses cannot control geopolitical events like Brexit. But they can control where their time and budget is spent on staff learning and development. IT leaders are used to making tough decisions for their business and leading their departments by example. They need to use that leadership to show themselves as ambassadors for upskilling and professional development, and demonstrate that they are fully invested in the futures of their staff and their business.

Marcus Jewell, Vice President Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Brocade
Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison