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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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