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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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