Richard Whomes, Senior Director at Rocket Software, offers advice on how to recruit and retain tech talent amid uncertain political times, with a focus on potential post-Brexit brain drain
Brexit and London
In the past three years, the UK has created 25 unicorns, of which London has produced 23 of with a combined value of $132 billion. The Big Smoke still ‘got it’ when it comes to tech – it is the third most significant tech ecosystem in the world after all. But an ecosystem is only worth as much as the people who participate in it. So, what happens when London experiences a mass exodus of highly skilled workers?
Over half of Britain’s businesses believe the country is at risk of a brain drain after Brexit, many worried in particular about a shortage of tech skills. Although the tech sector has continued to flourish in Britain since the vote to leave the European Union three years ago, a record £5.5 billion in foreign investment in the first seven months in 2019 alone, funding does not resolve the issue of people being able to build and develop businesses into success stories.
Recent research by Salesforce found that 54% of business leaders planned to invest more to develop their own tech talent, with the same proportion looking to train older generations in new technology and 51% intending to do more to increase the skills of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Investing in the population is positive, research shows 11.9 million high-skilled candidates will be chasing 16.1 million high skilled jobs in the UK by 2024.
Nevertheless, this does not prevent the potential exodus of workers to EU countries, and key cities in the European Union, including Frankfurt and Paris, are lining up to woo British-based techies. And without a government-backed approach, this is not the answer. But what is? Let’s look outside our borders for some Baltic inspiration.
For tech companies that rely on EU residents’ unique digital skillsets, Estonia’s forward-thinking digital economy can enable the continuation of collaboration across borders. The e-Residency programme, a government initiative introduced in 2014, is a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s e-services and a transparent business environment for companies and micro-businesses to work over the internet as part of the EU.
Over 6,000 business have been started as a result of the initiative, and millions of pounds have been contributed to the Estonian economy, demonstrating how being digitally advanced has opened doors for Estonia to become more self-sufficient and make a name for itself amongst some of the other European tech startup power-houses. The British government offering e-residencies would resolve some problems of the Brexit debate; continuing investment in the U.K. economy whilst reducing the physical impact of immigration.
But that’s not enough, because a tech hub needs to be the whole package …
Jordan is striving to become the Middle East’s next Silicon Valley. However, experts say the Kingdom is a long way from achieving this accolade without developing its tech talent. A systematic shift is required with interventions at all levels of education and training if the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) predictions that tech startups will contribute $168 million to the GDP is true.
But a good start has been made in the form of initiatives like “One Million Jordanian Coders”, a collaboration between Jordan’s Crown Prince Foundation, the private sector and the UAE, and startup Hello World Kids (HWK), a computer coding training programme integrating coding skills into schools.
However, according to David Wheeler, editor of the London-based Al-Fanar Media, a publication focused on education, research and culture in the Arab world, these government-backed initiatives are not a magical shortcut to employment or a substitute for the more comprehensive education that is needed.
It is not just a systematic political shift to encourage tech developments but also economic investment to go alongside these initiatives. For example, consider the push in Appalachia to teach laid-off coal miners to code. In 2017, the Appalachian Regional Commission granted $1.5 million to Mined Minds and other not-for-profits promoting coding in the region to strengthen workforce skills.
According to analysis, each coal job supports three-and-a-half others, which means if you pull the plug on them, the rest of the economy goes out. Changing the dynamic of one economy to be more tech-focused requires collaboration, while grassroots work will only propel it so far.
Coming full circle
Although Brexit is out of the hands of tech executives, a brain drain can be avoided. Whilst investing in locals and teach them tech skills vital to their economy is a step in the right direction, an inclusive 360-degree approach is needed if London is to prevent a mass exodus of workers. This could involve fully-backed government initiatives, including the potential support of digital citizenship. By taking inspiration from our neighbours, we can find new ways to ensure London’s tech scene remains as crucial and open as ever.
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