British technology's biggest risk: A skills shortage

Britain's capital has firmly established itself on the global tech scene, but there remain some risks to its upward trajectory.

Following a series of high profile acquisitions and IPOs, the creation of tens of thousands of new firms and the success of the city's inaugural Technology Week, confidence in the London technology sector is at an all-time high.

Britain's capital has firmly established itself on the global tech scene, driving forward Europe's reputation in fields such as financial tech (or fintech), datatech, and healthtech. But there remain some risks to its upward trajectory.

One of the major hurdles revolves around skills and access to talent. In every technology sector around the world, a shortage of talent needs to be addressed for the industry to fully flourish.

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Private sector to drive innovation

Why? Firstly, we rely on tech talent as a source of innovation and ground-breaking, disruptive ideas. Secondly, we need a skilled tech industry to ensure those ideas fulfil their potential, scale-up and change the world.

Ensuring London is fully equipped with talent has risen to the top of the London tech agenda; earlier this year, over 40 percent of the Tech London Advocates group of experts and professionals identified a shortage of talent as the single biggest obstacle facing London's technology sector. Given the city's position as a global leader in tech, the repercussions of this shortage will be not confined to London alone.

I am a firm believer that the private sector is best positioned to drive tech innovation, sustainability and growth. In London, initiatives and "bootcamps" such as Decoded and Maker's Academy offer excellent coding and tech courses - some teaching how to code in a day. While these courses may initially seem costly, they can develop the skills to land a £35,000 ($58,000) salary job, representing a fantastic long-term investment.

British universities also need to transform into pipelines of tech talent - in the same way Stanford and Berkeley quench Silicon Valley's thirst for skilled graduates. While some of Britain's newer universities have embraced tech and coding, too many higher-education establishments continue to place a disproportionate focus on more conventional or humanities-based subjects. Furthermore, it is vital we ensure that those universities which do teach data skills are tuned into the tech industry, so the skills they offer are relevant and applicable to the working world.

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And for those not in higher education or able to make a bootcamp, opportunities for tech mentoring and apprenticeships, which are increasingly gaining traction in the U.K., should be adopted by more tech firms. Germany's apprenticeship system, for example, has demonstrated the value of apprenticeships and how they can serve as an entry point to a career in tech.

Yet the issue of talent and skills is not one that that the private sector can solve alone. The state also has a role to play.

'Bold step'

In the U.K., the government has taken a bold step by becoming the first in the world to establish coding as part of the school national curriculum. This is encouraging - as South Korea has shown, an education that focuses on science, maths and tech reaps rewards for global tech innovation. But the government must also help to foster a national culture, and raise awareness, of the importance and potential of a career in technology.

Just as graduates would traditionally aspire to a career at a big law firm or consultancy, we now need our young people to dream of careers at start-ups like money transfer service Transferwise or taxi app Hailo (both founded in London) - or even founding the next big tech start-up. Following this year's school exam results, statistics from the examining bodies in England which show that more young people are studying science- or math-based A-levels are encouraging.

Ultimately, a constant and reliable source of talent must be home-grown. But attracting the best and brightest from around the world is just as important to gain a competitive advantage. This is why the state must ensure that the tech sector is as open and accessible to foreign talent as it can be.

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Take Chile's "Chilicon Valley" for example - founded on the principle of welcoming immigrant entrepreneurs by offering them a one-off investment of $40,000 and a year-long work visa. Since its inception, it has welcomed thousands of entrepreneurs from dozens of different countries, and is quickly establishing itself as South America's leading entrepreneurial hub.

To help encourage this in London, Tech London Advocates has launched the "Home Office Hours" initiative, which provides advice and support to overseas tech talent who wish to work in London's technology sector. It also continues to hold discussions with the Home Office on immigration policy and visas for exceptional tech talent.

London's tech sector is innovating and - through tech verticals like datatech, healthtech, and fintech - re-shaping how we live our lives. We must ensure we nourish it with the talent it deserves.

Russ Shaw is an angel and venture investor and the founder of Tech London Advocates, which aims to support technology start-ups in finding new investment, new talent and achieving high growth.

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