Talent is the number one issue facing UK businesses and the government needs the help of the IT industry to ensure capability gaps are filled.
That was the conclusion of Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who spoke this week at Sooner Than You Think, Bloomberg’s flagship technology event in Westminster, London. He said the government continues to focus on the development of the UK IT industry and supporting infrastructure like 5G will play a key role.
Wright said the government recognises talent remains a huge concern for a lot of businesses and this anxiety centres on two key issues: immigration and skills. In terms of immigration, Wright acknowledged that the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit process has caused understandable concern amongst UK business leaders, particularly when it comes to attracting foreign talent.
While continuing uncertainty makes planning difficult, Wright said he anticipated that the government would be able to bring more clarity as the UK exits the European Union – and he called on business leaders to help shape the future immigration process:
We’re going to be designing our own immigration system – we almost start from a blank sheet of paper. And that provides a great opportunity for the tech sector to talk with us about what sorts of thing people want to see in our immigration system as we leave the EU. It’s a pretty foolish government that designs an immigration system that doesn’t allow access to the UK for people who can really drive economic growth and add to our society in so many ways. People are saying to me that they’re worried they won’t be able to get the talent they want. The answer is to come and help us design this new system.
Wright said the UK will need to attract and create capability in a range of technology areas – and he suggested artificial intelligence (AI) will be uppermost in these high-growth skills. He said the government needs to ensure the UK has the right kind of talent going through training schemes and further education programmes, including at master’s and doctorate level.
Skilling up for AI
Wright referred to the government’s recent announcement that it will invest up to £18.5m in efforts to enhance diversity in AI and data science roles. A key element of this programme is to upskill the existing workforce through conversion courses. Wright said the funding will give people – who might not be in the AI field right now, but who could benefit from transferring into it – the opportunity to re-train:
There are good people out there that perhaps don’t see themselves as an ideal fit for technology and AI right now. We need to get the message across that there are huge opportunities and exciting prospects in the tech sector, and you don’t necessarily have to come from a narrow background to do those things.
Wright said the long-term aim is to ensure that all UK areas benefit from an investment in UK tech and data skills, not just the “bubble” of London. He referred to data published recently by the government's Digital Economy Council, which suggests opportunities to work in tech beyond the capital continue to grow:
London is a huge powerhouse but there are many other places that are doing tremendously well. Tech unicorns are performing well, not just in London, but in other cities around the UK. New job opportunities are being generated in places like Oxford, Cambridge, reading, Belfast, Newcastle and Leeds. The UK tech is just that – it’s a tech sector for the whole of the UK.
While the signs of growth are encouraging, some attendees at the event highlighted concerns that access to venture capital can be tough in the UK, especially when compared to the US. Wright said the UK remains a strong location for people who want to invest in technology and he referred to significant opportunities in terms of tech for good, where he said the government has set up a £30m investment fund for these projects:
What’s really needed is a recognition by those who are offering capital that we need what’s called ‘patient capital’ – we won’t see overnight results; we might see some failures before we see some successes. We need investors who are prepared to accept that reality and increasingly we are seeing investors who are prepared to accept that reality and who see the potential of the tech sector, particularly in terms of tech for good that can deliver huge social benefit. Everything the government does is designed to encourage confidence in the tech sector. We want people to come here and invest.
Wright also acknowledged infrastructure plays a key part in supporting inward investment to the UK. He said 5G is “hugely important” and that every country wants to be ahead of the game, including the UK:
Some of the test beds and trials that the government has initiated – including £40m this week – will help us try and work out what 5G can deliver to our economy and our society and the transformation in public services it might be able to deliver. But you also have to think about where we’re buying the equipment from. It’s not about one company or country but how you create a telecoms supply chain that’s safe and secure.
Wright said all suppliers to the UK 5G network must meet those requirements. While other countries – particularly the US – are making their own decisions on supporting infrastructure, Wright said the UK must make its choices as part of a global network:
I understand the telecoms companies who are waiting for us to deliver an answer on Huawei are impatient – they want us to get on with it, so they can decide what to do. But there are factors that must be taken into account and we have to consider what other countries are doing, too. The US is making decisions in its own interests and they’re also making judgements in a hugely interconnected telecoms world. This is an interconnected world and an interconnected sector.