The government is already responding to the talent and investment challenges highlighted by the new Tech Nation report, through its new digital strategy and an emphasis on collaboration with industry, culture secretary Karen Bradley told an audience of digital professionals in London today.
Tech City UK talked to nearly 3,000 digital tech professionals for its new Tech Nation report – and the report sets out key challenges for government and industry as the country prepares to leave the European Union.
At the report’s Royal Institution launch, culture secretary Karen Bradley responded to those challenges. Given that her department co-sponsors Tech City UK Bradley will have been well prepared – but her responses demonstrate the government’s approach as Brexit looms.
Tech Nation 2017 – the third annual state-of-the-nation report – says UK tech workers earn 44% more than non-tech workers, and that the digital economy is growing twice as fast as the wider economy. It also reports £6.8bn in investment into UK tech – over 50% more than in any other European country – and two thirds of that ending up outside of London.
“Boosting our digital economy is key to creating the high-skilled, highly paid jobs we all want to see,” Bradley said. “This combination of highly paid jobs and inward investment is why digital sits right at the heart of the government’s plan for Britain, to deliver a country that is stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before.”
Tech Nation’s challenges overlap with some of the seven key themes contained in the government’s digital strategy, published at the start of March – connectivity, skills, startups, research, cyber safety, business online and data.
On skills, more than half of the Tech Nation survey respondents said finding employees with the right skills was a major challenge, given the pace of change of the industry.
Bradley promised that the new digital skills partnership, announced in the digital strategy, would address the digital skills gap “in a more collaborative way.”
Tech Nation survey respondents pressed for policies that helped attract “the best and brightest global talent”, arguing that this must remain a priority with Brexit.
“We need to attract the brightest and best global talent,” agreed Bradley. “So as we negotiate Brexit the government is absolutely clear that we want a settlement that allows us to attract the brightest and best global talent. This is a strategic priority.”
A critical area for survey respondents was access to finance, at every stage of growth. The Tech Nation report says that, even at levels of investment that outpace the rest of Europe, investment capital is still behind other regions including the USA and centres in Asia.
“We have every reason to believe that we can make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business,” said Bradley. “Global Britain will trade with the world, and our digital sectors can attract the best talent from home and abroad alike.
“The Tech Nation report is further proof that the UK is the digital capital of Europe, receiving almost two and a half times more tech investment than any other EU country between 2012 and 2016.”
On digital connectivity, respondents said it was vital to stay abreast of technology, with advancements like 5G key to staying competitive “Digital is now a utility and no one should be left behind,” said Bradley. “As we continue to roll out 4G and superfast broadband to the whole country, we will implement a universal service obligation.
“We will also put more than £1bn towards accelerating the development and uptake of next-generation digital infrastructure such as full fibre and 5G. We will also roll out free wifi on trains and in more public places, and boost mobile coverage on our roads.”
Gender diversity was another critical issue identified by the report. In more than half of tech businesses surveyed, men outnumbered women three to one.
“Just as we want to encourage all companies to embrace digital, so we want digital companies to make use of the best talent,” said Bradley. “That means looking at why there is such a lack of gender diversity. The government is supporting the further development of the tech talent charter. But this is something that we all need to think about. We cannot expect to get the best possible catch if we only fish in half of the pond.”
She said government and industry had to work together to address the challenges ahead. She pointed to the government’s creation of a new digital economy council, which would meet quarterly and that she would chair, focused on implementing the digital strategy.
Bradley said the new council would include scale-ups, cyber-security companies, academics, UK regions and key digital stakeholders. “We are finalising the membership and look forward to working with many of you on this,” she said.
She said a new digital economy advisory group, chaired by digital minister Matt Hancock, would meet once every six months. “That will have a particular focus on supporting the tech sector and innovation,” she said. “As part of this it will look at the challenges and opportunities presented by Britain’s exit from the EU.”
In a panel discussion, Sage chief executive Stephen Kelly said the UK was “way behind the curve” on technology education, with a tiny percentage studying technology at GCSE students and a four to one ratio of boys to girls in that area.
But Kelly said he was more optimistic now than at any time in 35 years of working in technology and said great entrepreneurs would “find a way” to bridge the skills gap. Sage itself was the largest tech employer in the English north east and was taking its responsibility seriously by supporting the local tech ecosystem.