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Could UK overcome the shortage of digital talent?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Kirill Wright)

Digitisation is playing a significant role in the transformation of all industries, becoming a key priority for businesses. It has also underlined the importance of attracting and retaining people with the right skills to ensure the successful transformation of organisations in today’s digital world.

According to Empirica, the shortage of IT specialists in Europe could reach nearly half a million by 2020. The situation is particularly challenging for businesses in the UK, especially due to the uncertainty created by Brexit. The majority of UK businesses will be forced to tackle a widening skills gap as a result of the shrinking talent pool due to any reduction in free movement of workers caused by Brexit. The skills gap as it stands can make it difficult for UK organisations to even embark on their digital transformation journey, let alone make it a successful one.

In the short term, technology industry investments and initiatives will be key to narrowing the skills gap. We are seeing more and more public and private sector collaborations to attract more young people to careers in AI and other digital fields. It is also positive to see the UK government’s new scheme to support workers whose jobs might become obsolete as a result of automation, who will receive retraining support. This will act as a safety net and enable workers to upskill for the AI era.

Digitisation is making Europe globally competitive

The Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) – that evaluates countries and major cities on their ability to attract, develop and retain talent – has ranked the UK 9th out of 114 countries.  This number doesn’t sound as though the UK is lagging behind particularly, but with other European countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands ranked much higher, UK businesses may struggle to attract and retain talent if they do not improve. This could also lead to new issues such as inflated salaries and an increase in temporary workers while existing workers quickly become overstretched and potentially underappreciated.

Due to the mobility of talent, the UK’s competition does not only come from neighboring European countries. Both developed and emerging markets across the globe are witnessing the competition for talent. Innovation hubs like Silicon Valley are attracting more and more highly skilled workers from across the globe with high salaries and perks on offer. So, with countries such as the US ahead of the UK in the GTCI rankings, the UK needs to ride on its strength of adopting innovation to scope the competition across the globe.

Becoming a hub for future talent

AI fever is sweeping the country: last year the government funded three new research projects to the tune of £3 million and asked them to investigate how businesses can make best use of AI in insurance and law, as well as analysing consumer attitudes to AI. Separately the government pledged up to £79 million for three new AI programmes to transform engineering, urban planning and healthcare. Although not insignificant, this investment pales in comparison to the $22 billion pledged by the Chinese government to further the country’s AI capabilities.

While the UK needs to increase its focus on investment in innovation, it also has to work on its ‘image’ to attract potential recruits. For example, many international companies such as Huawei, Samsung and Fujitsu have acknowledged the quality of French engineering and chosen France as their R&D hub. This development has a potential to generate a strong pool of talent – on a par with Silicon Valley – which can help the country’s technology industry grow internationally.

Some of the world’s leading tech companies announced plans to cut UK jobs or beef up their mainland European operations since the June 2016 referendum. For example, Japanese electronics giant Sony announced in January this year that it is moving its European headquarters from London to Amsterdam in the Netherlands . However, there are positives as companies like Facebook and Google are investing in the UK despite the political uncertainty and concerns over skills shortages. The UK will need to adopt different trends that can give the nation a unique and differentiated position in a competitive global market.

How to retain young talent in a competitive market

A company’s corporate strategy, focus on innovation and its views on inclusion and diversity are important for everyone, but especially young employees choosing a first employer. Thus, to attract and retain the best talent, the UK and its employers need to empower employees to innovate as well as being transparent with them on communicating corporate strategy .

Fostering and retaining the right talent is also a priority for organisations regarding their existing workforce too, of course. Building a culture of curiosity and constant learning is critical. Businesses also need to ensure that employees have access to the right platforms, tools and programmes to re-skill themselves as the breakneck speed of technology innovation continues and as the skills requirements of organisations – and society as a whole – change.

We are seeing steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done to foster the digital talent of tomorrow and position the UK technology industry at the forefront of digital transformation and future technology innovation – especially at this uncertain time.

Mark Weait, Head of Europe, Tata Communications