Tech City UK has its critics both within and outside of the capital - many have commented on the fact it has driven rent prices up and the digital infrastructure has been lacking. However, the brand certainly has gathered momentum and has provided a focal point for the London technology scene to flourish.
However, this hasn’t stopped the rest of the UK getting on with developing its own contribution to the UK's digital economy. And over the last year it has been encouraging to see central government realise the significant contribution that other regions make to the UK's technology industry - and in particular how important the North is – with initiatives like TechNorth and the Northern Powerhouse.
The publication of Make or Break: The Digital Future report, confirmed a lot of things that, up North, we’ve already been discussing. Namely: “Digital businesses can locate anywhere in the world, and if we fail to provide the right conditions for them to flourish in the UK, we will become a branch economy, much less prosperous and influential than we could be." And after a YouGov survey in May found that 33 percent of Londoners prefer Manchester as a second city, it’s a no-brainer that we should be considered as a great place to invest.
Not long ago at Manchester Digital, we conducted our annual digital skills audit to find out the current state of the digital skills gap in the North, which revealed that 50 percent of digital businesses have had to turn down work in the past 12 months because there is a lack of talent to carry the load. As well as the need to increase the volume of talent coming into the industry it is key that we make sure that new entrants are equipped with the right skills.
At the moment, what politicians demand from education throughout the UK isn’t necessarily what the digital industry is crying out for. But we can’t put all of the blame at the door of the government - digital businesses themselves now need to crank it up a gear and be far more assertive in their discussions with the government, to ensure that the right digital and technical skills are included within the curriculum. As well as this, we need to work together to create clear paths into digital and make it easier for emerging talent to find their route in.
Businesses based in the North are increasingly coming to us to help them find talent. The SME market is especially suffering as they lack the financial clout to compete with the larger corporates on wages and benefits. The Government seems to be pledging to create more and more apprenticeships on an almost weekly basis, which does sound promising.
But unless they fix the infrastructure and ensure that parents, teachers, and students see apprenticeships as viable options, and students are properly skilled, things won’t take off for the SME digital and tech community - which will hinder the sector as a whole. Unless we fix these fundamental issues, what is to stop digital businesses from setting up outside of the UK, with the tech industry renowned for working remotely often without any real reason for an office base?
More widely, when it comes to education, we need to have a conversation about whether it’s really beneficial to have digital courses that are three years long. It’s likely that by the time an undergraduate degree, for example, is completed, knowledge could be out of date - due to the rapid evolution of this sector's key principles.
It’s not all bad, though. At least in the North anyway, there has been a lot of progress recently. Coding clubs are becoming increasingly popular with students in schools and colleges. This will eventually feed the digital businesses in the North with well-trained employees but this is some way off and fingers crossed governments, both regional and national get down to tackling this problem at its root cause - sooner rather than later.
To make the North a renowned hub for digital internationally, and retain the talent we already have, we need to support this sector as much as we can – across education, infrastructure and policy. There is no quick fix, but if we start implementing changes, rather than just talking about them, it won’t be long until we begin to reap the benefits and see our industry thrive.