We are jeopardising UK tech by failing to tackle UK skills shortages

 
David Richards
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THE UK’s tech scene has changed beyond all recognition since I left London for the US in the late 1990s. Back then, there seemed little to be excited about beyond ARM and Autonomy. But fast forward to 2014 and Tech City can claim to have created more businesses than anywhere else in the UK, with UHY Hacker Young research showing that 15,620 firms were set up in the EC1V postcode in the year to March 2014.

This is a trend the government expects to continue. Earlier this year, science minister David Willetts said that Big Data alone would create 58,000 jobs and contribute £216bn to the UK economy by 2017. But there is a problem. While politicians are happy to praise the vibrancy of UK tech, they have been less willing to make the vital changes needed to allow it to thrive.

Monday marked the start of the inaugural London Technology Week; five days of events showcasing British tech. The UK tech scene has become firmly established as the poster child of the recovery, held up by the government as proof that it backs British business. Less discussed, however, is how it is failing to fill the jobs being created – and this is where Britain is falling short.

The high rate of vacancies among UK tech companies is a travesty. And despite the appeal of computer science at degree level, our universities are failing to teach the skills needed, particularly when, as was the case last year, computer science students top the list of unemployed graduates.

While Westminster loves to bang the drum for tech, if it is serious about helping the UK make the step up, it needs to ensure our firms have the pick of the crop when it comes to recruitment. This is a problem that’s not going to be addressed by plowing millions into startup incubators or office space – it demands a commitment to overhauling the education system to make graduates enterprise ready.

From this September, the national curriculum will require that all students between five and 16 are given the skills they need to build apps and code. But while this is a promising start, no equivalent commitment has been extended to revamping Britain’s universities, many of which are teaching code that hasn’t been used in the Valley for years. Make no mistake. Having institutions like MIT, Stanford and Caltech is the reason why US tech is streets ahead, not because the country’s schools are full of app-developing kids. Without equivalent measures, we risk being left behind.

I have long been an advocate of creating a British equivalent of MIT – a centre dedicated to nurturing the UK’s tech talent – and the recently-announced Alan Turing Institute suggests government is starting to think along similar lines.

Establishing high-quality tech apprenticeships will help until the Alan Turing Institute gets up and running. Later today, I will be unveiling WANdisco’s Big Data Apprenticeship Scheme, an initiative that provides on-the-job training to ensure participants have the skills to develop and build Big Data products using Hadoop.

But without a broader attempt to address the UK’s skills shortage, British tech will come unstuck. Fail to deliver on this and the thousands of tech firms starting up will inevitably look elsewhere to scale up.

David Richards is the co-founder and chief executive of WANdisco.