The UK has more skilled technology workers at the moment than at any previous moment in history. With London & Partners reporting that we have over 155,600 digital tech professionals in the UK and 44,000 of those are employed by fintech companies, finding talent is no longer the only challenge; instead it is the cost at which talent can be obtained, and then how we can develop and retain it. For the UK to retain its position as a global fintech leader and innovation hub it needs high impact government policies, some of which are relatively low cost, plus the creation of “fit for purpose” skills within the fintech sector and at our grass roots.
The growth of the UK fintech sector generated more than £20 billion in revenue in 2014, supported by strong initiatives from organisations such as Tech City UK and its Future Fifty initiative, Canary Wharf’s Level39, Barclays Techstars and Startup Bootcamp, and at a policy and development level by organisations such as Innovate Finance and Tech London Advocates. However, this growth is coming at an increasingly expensive talent price. We are starting to see serious competition for some of the best technical and business talent in the tech sector. Whilst this is good for growth, it still creates competition and shortages in skills with many companies facing up to 30,000 open job spaces in London alone. Andy McLean, Treasury Innovation co-lead at Investec, astutely pointed out in a recent open letter to City AM that City talent is often held from jumping into the emerging fintech market by the simple economics of life and the relative job security that comes with any established industry. The way that startups currently get talent through the door is by offering options or shares in their startup in lieu of a higher salary. But what else can young fintech companies do to compete against the more established industries to ensure they get the right talent without taking an unnecessarily big hit on their equity?
There are two solutions to this challenge. The first was seen in February this year, where research conducted by Professor Sir David Metcalf CBE and the Migration Advisory Council supported by Tech London Advocates resulted in the addition of three new digital tech skills to the official UK Shortage Occupation List. This relatively low cost and most welcome effort by the government when implemented could have a transformational impact for tech companies working in a very competitive industry landscape, as it will make it easier for employers to recruit international people with these digital skills.
The second remedy is at the other, earlier end of the talent supply chain; we are in the process transforming our education system to include programming and technical skills at the earliest possible age. But, while we are waiting for this to take effect, it is important to ensure that we invest as heavily as we can in “fit for purpose” teacher training to increase the availability of the right kind of modern technical tech skills beyond the traditional IT literacy levels. Teachers should be able to extend their students basic IT skills (i.e. not just using Microsoft or Google Docs) so that they can understand resources like GitHub and learn how to do things like check-in code for their students. Teaching students how their code repository becomes a next generation "digital CV" to advertise their skills is a relatively simple but powerful step we can start to take today. To achieve this, schools need to have computational thinking and programming as part of the curriculum. The way to start this at the very earliest stage is through initiatives like Code Club, which Canary Wharf directly supports in Tower Hamlets.
Code Club is a nationwide network of free volunteer-led after-school coding clubs for children aged 9-11. As of January 2015 we now have 22 active Code Clubs in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, reaching 308 children. That means 47 percent of primary schools in our borough are engaged with Code Club. Canary Wharf Group has drawn on the tech talent across the estate - be this within banks like Morgan Stanley or mentors from Level39 - to volunteer their time and expertise to teach our grass roots talent coding skills. And the end result? We have seen a 175 percent increase in club numbers in Tower Hamlets from January 2014 – the fastest growth compared the rest of the UK. This initiative has many similar success stories all over the UK and demonstrates the value in nurturing our on-shore talent as early as possible in order to equip them with the right skills for their future, hobbies, schooling and careers. It will also help tip the balance in favour of our future workforces so that digital and developer jobs are not just outsourced internationally, but that the talent search starts at home.
At the other entry point for talent are excellent technical programmes for recent graduates, such as Code First Girls which brings a much needed injection of tech-savvy women into the tech sector and we are pleased to see them learning their skills at Level39. This kind of intervention will help ensure we achieve balance and diversity as well as a much needed boost to the thirsty tech scene. Wouldn't it be wonderful if women coders turned out to be part of the UK's secret weapon in the global tech talent war?
The UK is in a unique position following the success of our tech and fintech sectors, but in order to maintain our leadership position and a sustainable digital future we need to act now. Talent needs the right environment to flourish. We have the raw ingredients and with small changes we can make a large impact on the success of our future generations, the tech industry and ultimately on our economy.