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 the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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