Government hands out tech grants but faces IT skills crisis

With 2.6 million unemployed, many tech firms still can’t find quality staff.

It's been announced that ten British companies are to lead government-backed research, development and demonstration projects that will use talent in the UK's information and communication technology sectors in an attempt to improve productivity and competitiveness in manufacturing and construction. But the news comes amidst growing concern that the technology industry itself is facing a skills crisis.

The Technology Strategy Board and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will award over £6m of grant funding to the ten collaborative projects. Including match-funding from the businesses taking part, the total value of the R&D will be around £12m.

But numerous technology firms have told the NS that they are struggling to find high quality graduates to fill vacant positions. Others say there is a lack of enthusiasm amongst graduates for careers in technology, despite David Cameron's hopes that initiatives like Tech City or "Silicon Roundabout" in Old Street will act as a hub to spur economic growth.

Loughborough-based clean power systems firm Intelligent Energy employs 250 people in total, spread across the UK, US and India. Its CEO Dr. Henri Winand told us that the firm has a number of vacancies in the UK, but that "There is a lack of applicants for some roles, especially those jobs which require more science and engineering backgrounds, or indeed, people with solid programme management skills."

Such comments are backed up by research published today by IT recruitment firm, Modis International. Its survey of 250 IT decision-makers in the UK found that 27 per cent are struggling to source quality candidates, rising to 44 per cent in larger firms. The survey found that over one third of companies are struggling to implement their own IT strategies because they haven't got the right skills in-house; 23 per cent plan to turn to temporary specialist contractors to plug the gap. "The IT industry is in danger of a skills crisis," said Jim Albert, Modis managing director.

The story was the same with a range of technology companies, with only a few saying that they have been able to find graduates that meet expectations, or even show any enthusiasm for technology jobs. Backup Technology's CEO Simon Chappell told the NS it has open positions for graduates, but at one university only five people bothered to turn up to their careers presentation: "Surprising, given job market conditions and the numbers of unemployed graduates and young people," he noted.

The Government has launched various apprenticeship programmes and growth and innovation schemes such as "Silicon Roundabout" and it's offered some tax breaks to tech entrepreneurs and investors. Yet it seems, from the majority of technology firms we spoke to, that these initiatives are not yet paying off in terms of attracting the right kind of candidates into the technology industry.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review: read the full report at www.cbronline.com.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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