The tech industry on both sides of the Atlantic has been united in opposition to restrictive immigration policies, with advocates, entrepreneurs and investors making it clear that access to talent is crucial to building a healthy technology ecosystem.
But a global tech sector also requires access to home-grown talent, and a system of training and education that provides citizens of all ages an opportunity to work in our economy’s fastest growing sector. The government’s digital strategy, released this week, is the perfect opportunity to kick-start our digital and tech talent drive.
Forces of globalisation have played a role in displacing existing industries in western economies, creating divisions between unemployed blue collar workers and the “elites” who are the principle beneficiaries of globalisation.
The challenge for the government’s digital strategy is not to maximise output from our current tech hubs such as London, but to use education to spread the benefits of this industry to areas that are suffering from a lack of traditional manufacturing jobs.
With the best of intentions, we will not see an increase in coal mining in Wales, ship-building in Belfast or traditional manufacturing in Birmingham. Instead, our government should be providing workers with scalable digital skills training
This will mean providing financial support to build networks in areas that do not currently have a critical mass of tech talent. Private sector solutions exist, such as Bit Source, a Kentucky software development company that hires former coal workers, or Founders and Coders, an east London cooperative that offers a free coding bootcamp.
The digital strategy must take steps towards enabling ventures such as these to deliver at scale, through access to funding, supply chain and government property to teach digital skills and allow startups and scaleups to thrive.
If the Prime Minister’s strategy is to provide leadership on this, she will have to "kill off"’ some sacred cows, and start by rejecting the narrative that previous industries can return in future. With the best of intentions, we will not see an increase in coal mining in Wales, ship-building in Belfast or traditional manufacturing in Birmingham.
Instead, our government should be providing workers with scalable digital skills training in everything from using email to building web apps and from developing digital content and design to supporting high-level coding and data analytics.
Rather than obsessing over Brexit and a divided society, we can build a positive shared narrative that puts digital skills at the heart of the British economy for the benefit of all.
The strategy must acknowledge that some western countries are already competing on these terms. France recently became the first European country to hire a government Chief Data Officer, showing a commitment to digitising government services and putting tech at the heart of government.
The London Mayor has made a similar commitment, but this function will need to be valued and implemented at every level of government if we are to roll out an effective programme of digital skills training.
The Department of Cultural, Media and Sport’s report is a positive step towards tackling this issue, but the government does not have the all the resources to deliver on this independently. The industry is too fast-paced and changeable for this to be centrally managed; government should decentralise responsibility and deliver the programme by partnering with leading private sector bodies such as Ada College-The National College for Digital Skills, Makers Academy, Just IT, ELAAT, Decoded, Teen Tech, Founders4School and many others.
Globalisation has not failed, but the west will need to invest heavily in digital skills training for the new, emerging industries if we want to ensure growth and prosperity for current and future generations to come. The government’s digital strategy can be an important first step to address this aspiration.