Why we need to address the UK's digital skills shortage right now

Purple’s Gavin Wheeldon believes fixing the UK tech skills shortage is an urgent issue
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Gavin Wheeldon, CEO of Purple, explains why he thinks the Government should consider subsidised tuition fees to give programming courses a boost.

“A shortage in suitable digital skills for digital jobs persists in the UK labour market. This is a major risk to business growth, innovation and broader societal development.”

These aren’t my words but those of the Digital Skills Report published by the government in January this year. I agree with them wholeheartedly.

It is predicted that by 2030 the ICT workforce will have grown by 39 per cent.

Additional workers with digital skills are desperately needed. The Future Digital Skills Needs of the UK Economy, estimated that 745,000 additional workers with digital skills would be needed to meet rising demand from employers between 2013 and 2017.

In my experience this hasn’t happened. I don’t believe we’re anywhere near meeting this demand. As CEO of Purple, an intelligent spaces company, we are at the forefront of development. Purple evolved from Purple WiFi, the cloud-based marketing and analytics Wi-Fi software company, to take the lead in real-time analytics and marketing for venues and businesses that want to engage with visitors and understand the use of physical spaces.

We are expanding rapidly. With nearly 8 million users across 134 countries, we work with a range of brands and venues, including Molson Coors, Legoland, Jaguar, United Wireless Arena, City of York and TUI. We have an active reseller base of over 300 in 60 countries. Purple employs over 70 full time staff and currently has offices in the UK, US, Madrid and Melbourne with more offices planned.

However, we need skilled tech staff now. We need programmers and we need them at our base in Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester. But recruitment is difficult. The skills, it seems, are in short supply.

The government report backs up our experience. It commented: “The shortage in digital skills represents a key bottleneck for industry and is linked to one in five of all vacancies. Currently, 72 per cent of large companies and 49 per cent of SMEs are suffering tech skill gaps.”

So how can this be improved? If digital companies are to succeed and thrive, the next generation of programmers need to be trained at an early age.

The UK Digital Skills Force examined schooling and careers advice and reported in their 2014 Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s World that teachers, students and parents were unsupported in advisory roles when it came to the tech market. A lack of understanding of the UK digital market and its huge success stopped many students being advised about careers in the area.

Many parents, it found, thought digital skills were irrelevant to a future career. That coupled with the fact that only 17 per cent of people working in tech are women and there is also a huge gender issue to consider.

At Purple we take two student developers on placement every year in the hope they will return to us once qualified. We are welcoming back a development graduate this summer, which shows our investment in potential employees at a young age is paying dividends and does help us to attract and capture upcoming talent.

We also appoint school leaver apprentices in other areas of the business and this also seems to work well. For example, our marketing apprentice is now our full time Marketing Assistant.

But while we wait for the new generation to be fully equipped, companies such as Purple need to look for ways to address the digital shortage.

Can we do more to train our staff in-house to help them progress to be the programmers of the future? Can governments, both national and local, find a way to encourage, nurture and link up skills with careers? How can students coming out of university be better equipped to fulfil the roles open to them?

A national scheme to highlight the importance of these skills and to showcase exactly what companies such as Purple can offer is crucial. Re-education of teachers, parents and indeed, those actively seeking work is a necessity.

The Coding from Five Initiative will help hugely, but we won’t feel the benefits of that for another 15 years.

I feel we’re at a stage where the Government should consider subsidised tuition fees to give programming courses the boost that is sorely needed. Furthermore, if we bring University curriculums more inline with the demands of the real world our graduates will be better prepared for the challenges they will face when they enter employment full time.

Gavin Wheeldon is CEO of Wi-Fi software company Purple.
http://purple.ai

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