Tackling the UK digital skills gap means tackling gender diversity in UK tech

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The world is changing. Fundamental shifts are taking place in business and society, and they are turning the world we thought we knew on its head. Global trends, from population growth and rapid urbanisation to the explosion in data, will present the biggest challenges and opportunities that society has ever seen. And underpinning all of this is the rise of digital technology. There will be no sector and no job role that is immune from the disruptive potential of digital technology. We have an opportunity to be faster, better, more flexible and more productive. There is no need for us to fear technological progress, but to make digital technology work for our businesses, our public services and ourselves, we have to know how to harness its vast potential.

Mind the skills gap

But here’s the challenge, while the digitalisation of the British economy continues apace, experts highlight a 40,000-strong shortfall in people with the necessary science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) skills required to meet the demands of the UK economy. And it’s getting worse – the gap between the STEM skills needed by employers, and those evident in graduates and school leavers, has widened for the last ten years running. As a result, employers report that 43 per cent of STEM vacancies are hard to fill, due to a lack of qualified candidates on the market.

And within the existing workforce, the picture is no brighter – some 75 per cent of UK businesses report a skills shortage among their own employees, while just one in ten manufacturers think that the UK is ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. All in all, this digital skills gap is costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in the lost potential for additional GDP.

The importance of education

To unlock the potential of digital, we’ve got to educate and inspire the next generation of technologists, engineers, creatives and entrepreneurs alike.

In the Autumn Budget last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer demonstrated the Government’s continued commitment to technology sector investment and growth, as well as STEM education. His initiatives to fund and support technology entrepreneurs are encouraging, while the focus on teaching computing and maths, and the development of digital skills is crucial.

Across all levels, educators in schools, colleges, universities and industry need to embrace change. We need to teach digital literacy and important technological skills, from basic programming to managing complex systems and equipment. These practical skills, along with creativity, 3D design and logical reasoning, will be crucial in the digital future.

To help bridge the skills gap, HP UK pledged its support for the Government’s Digital Strategy in 2017, with three unique programmes to boost digital skills in Britain. This included the expansion of our Learning Studios initiative, which equips schools across the country with the latest education technologies, and supports teachers to help improve IT skills. Within HP itself, we are running unconscious bias hiring training across the UK in 2018, and introducing a Returners Program to encourage women who have left the workforce back into the workplace.

The gender diversity imperative

Education is important, but diversity is crucial. Across science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we can broaden the skills base of the UK’s digital workforce, by making sure that it truly reflects the diversity of our society. We can only do that by developing interest and skills in technology across the entire talent pool. But with female representation in the UK tech and ICT sector currently sitting at just 17 per cent, it’s time for the best talent in our industry, and the corporations that hire them, to flex their influence and bring about greater diversity.

One hundred years on from women gaining the vote in Britain, this endemic gender imbalance in the UK tech industry is unacceptable, and we have to work together as an industry to attract and retain more female talent. But words are not enough; we need meaningful actions that will drive change on three levels:

  • Firstly, we have to develop the right interest and skills in technology from a young age among both boys and girls. Industry can help educators to make this change, and we can start by showing students that there are plenty of female role models working in tech, right now, right here in the UK.
  • Secondly, businesses can take a stand by building diversity into their hiring and buying policies. For instance, in the UK, HP is a founder signatory to the Tech Talent Charter, and we have also committed to hiring a minimum of 50 per cent female interns each year. Our intern scheme is the main pipeline for our graduate employment.
  • Thirdly, leadership must keep diversity goals elevated on the boardroom agenda, and they must scorecard their performance – what gets measured gets done.

But while vital, these three measures are just a starting point. HP and all technology businesses have to remain accountable for diversity. We must continually set ourselves goals and measurable targets to address the dire diversity imbalance within the UK tech sector.

For businesses, diversity is much more than a box-ticking exercise. It is a fundamental moral and commercial imperative. It drives new business, fuels innovation, and attracts and attains the very best talent. I am a firm believer that the more points of view a business can draw on, the better its decisions, its products and services, and the company as a whole will be. A better gender balance in the UK tech industry will help to bridge the country’s digital skills gaps, fuelling business and economic growth, and securing Britain’s place as global leader in digital innovation. 

George Brasher, UK MD, HP
Image source: Shutterstock/gpointstudio