03 January 2019
What impact is Brexit having on the UK’s IT skills market? RAHIEL NASIR asks if the country’s talent shortages are set to become worse. Plus, the skills network managers and their teams will need in order to support UK Plc’s ongoing digital transformation.
Following the UK referendum vote to leave the EU in June 2016, some industry commentators immediately raised concerns about the country’s technology skills shortages worsening. They warned that ‘Techxit’ could now become a reality with organisations struggling to hire and retain non-UK IT staff (see News, Jul-Aug 2016 issue).
For instance, with the UK’s well documented shortage of tech talent, many companies believe they cannot compete globally without tapping into highly-skilled overseas workers such as those from the EU. But they now fear the prospect of having to apply for visas and becoming hampered by bureaucratic processes in their quest to access such workers. Some also argue that leaving the EU will make it even more difficult for UK technology companies to compete with the US tech giants who will benefit from the ability to draw from a much larger talent pool.
So two years after the historic vote, what’s the reality?
“In a nutshell, it has pretty much been ‘business as usual’ for the IT industry in the face of Brexit,” says Ahsan Iqbal, director, technology at global recruitment consultancy Robert Walters. “London’s tech industry has one of the most international workforces in the world, joining the likes of Singapore, Berlin, and Chicago, according to the Tech Nation 2018 report.
“If there was one area where we did see a slowdown in recruitment activity following the announcement of Brexit it was in financial services and the bigger banks. During this downtime, we witnessed some of the larger tech firms such as Google and Amazon in the UK swoop in and take top talent away from the more traditional sectors.”
Curo Talent deals almost exclusively with Microsoft contract work and says that very few of the 35,000 freelance experts in its database come from outside of the UK. The company’s marketing head Graham Smith says: “We have just conducted a survey of hiring managers and in-house recruitment executives and asked if Brexit would impact their IT recruitment plans for 2019. The respondents hire both permanent and contract IT staff across a range of technologies and 48 per cent stated that Brexit will have no impact.”
Smith believes the impact of Brexit is more likely to be on an organisation’s confidence in signing-off big IT transformation projects. “Business does not like uncertainty. At the moment, demand for IT subject matter experts outstrips supply, but if demand falls it could impact salaries and day rates.”
Andrew Gardner, director at recruitment firm Reed Technology, echoes this view to an extent when he says: “Change creates uncertainty, and the great unknown that is Brexit has undoubtedly had an impact – not only on the technology sector but across all industries, with a number of skilled workers looking at their options.
“The candidate indecisiveness is mirrored by employers, with some organisations slowing investment and spending until the outcome is revealed, while others are stealing a march and increasing their headcounts. “Whether this air of uncertainty and confusion continues depends, firstly, on whether the UK can successfully negotiate a deal with the EU, and secondly, what the details of that agreement include.”
Overall though, and in line with the underpinning rationale behind the Brexit vote, Gardner says he expects to see a reduction in foreign workers. “Unsurprisingly, we are seeing some choosing to return to their home countries or simply not to migrate to the UK. Conversely, we are currently partnering with our European operations in certain candidate led skillsets because we are seeing an appetite to move to the UK before any restrictions on movement are implemented.”
Skill shortage not new
Curo Talent’s Smith reckons that while the skills shortage may be set to become worse, this is not primarily because of Brexit.
“IT skills are constantly evolving as new technologies enter the market. The labour market has struggled to keep pace with the constantly changing landscape. Initiatives such as the emphasis on STEM subjects in schools and the T-level apprenticeships will help build a pool of talent, but it will take time for that to feed its way into the world of work.
“EU tech experts, or IT workers from other countries, can fill the gap in the meantime – but that assumes they have the right skills. All countries struggle with the same problem – a rapidly changing tech landscape and a workforce that cannot be re-trained fast enough.”
Bob Nott, MD of specialist training firm PTT, lends his voice to the debate as he points that it is widely acknowledged there is a looming skill shortage in the ICT sector, irrespective of the effects of Brexit. “This is partly because of the rapid advances in technology leaving some behind. However, training aims in the sector are often short-sighted and narrowly focused on the participants’ current roles without providing the foundations to adapt to advances in technology.”
Iqbal from Robert Walters is likely to agree here: “Contrary to widespread discussion, Brexit will not necessarily exasperate any sort of skills shortage within the IT industry. We can expect this to follow a regular pattern where areas in high demand, such as DevOps, will understandably be met with a candidate shortage.”
Uncertainty aside, what’s clear is that the country’s forthcoming departure from the European Union presents new opportunities. In its Digital Brexit Report published early last year, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said Brexit potentially provides the UK with an “incredible opportunity to create jobs, drive growth, create a fairer society, and position itself as a digital world leader”.
But in order to ensure that the country reaps the maximum benefit from the exit, the report called for more investment in the current and future workforce, along with academia and research, to match the UK’s digital ambitions in every sector. It also said that this had to be supported by “world-leading” digital infrastructure through strategic cooperation on communications, regulation and pricing beyond Brexit.
Many industry commentators have pointed out that the role of IT and network managers has changed over the years. So moving forward in a post- Brexit era, and in order to achieve the “digital ambitions” referred to by the BCS above, will IT pros need to offer more than just the ‘traditional’ skills of LAN/WLAN infrastructure building, updating software, maintaining server rooms, patch updates, etc.?
Part of the Maindec Group, MCSA provides IT services across the UK and operates from a number of key locations across the mainland. According to its MD Paul Timms, IT managers are no longer just ‘techies’ who exist to ensure system availability: “They are now more integrated into the business and have a key role in developing business solutions.”
According to Timms, the pace of change is accelerating as a result of the rapid adoption of cloud technologies. He says that as companies migrate services to cloud-based technologies, whether IaaS, PaaS or DRaaS, IT managers must ensure that their company is getting maximum benefit from all that this has to offer, whilst simultaneously balancing budgets.
“IT departments will need to work smarter to ensure that off-premise services are accessible, compliant and secure, and that these consumption based resource models consume minimal resource until the point of use. IT managers need to ensure that their department is appropriately trained to deliver these objectives.
“Staff with ‘traditional’ skills also are realising that the world is changing and that they too need to adapt or risk being left behind. But equally, their experience and understanding remains invaluable in this modern computing world.”
So does that mean IT pros need to be more business-minded and look at ways of how technology can improve business? “No, I’m not sure I fully agree with this,” says Timms. “The IT managers of the future need to be able to do both – there is little doubt that if systems are not available, they will look to the IT team to fix it and fix it quickly! The aspect of the role that is changing is the business focus. It’s what IT can do to help businesses in general, and to develop solutions that meet the specific needs of the business.”
Iqbal is likely to support this view. “Whilst the outcome of negotiations remains to be seen, we can assume that post-Brexit, UK companies may outsource some of the roles abroad rather than try to attract EU talent into the country. But these tech-heavy based roles in the UK will be replaced by the need for more strategic thinkers as the role of the IT manager changes to become more business-focused.”
Securing the future
Security is an area that continues to dominate the IT agenda and, regardless of what kind of Brexit deal is ultimately agreed, it is a subject that will remain uppermost for both the government, industry and consumers alike.
But while the ambition is for the UK to be the global leader in the field of cyber security, this is an area where much more needs to be done in terms of creating the skills and talents needed to fend off ever increasing threats.
Speaking earlier this year, Paul German, CEO of security software specialist Certes Networks, said organisations now recognise the need to invest heavily in security. But he went on to point out that when day rates for cyber security experts hit £1,400, the industry clearly has a “massive problem” regarding supply and demand. “While it is fair to say that the escalation in cyber threats has created an unprecedented need for individuals with skills, talent and experience, it is chronic under-investment in training and education that is at the heart of the skills shortage problem.
“The industry is frankly appalling at selling itself; at inspiring the next generation by demonstrating that IT can be an exciting and financially rewarding career. In addition, training has over the past decade become almost exclusively product focused – with vendor ‘academies’ teaching individuals about specific product sets, rather than security framework requirements, a move that has further weakened the depth of expertise offered by any one individual.”
According to German, the only way organisations will be able to address the huge demand for cyber security skills will be to take control and invest. “And that means shifting away from outsourcing and a reliance upon expensive contractors towards re-insourcing key services, including security: the onus is now on companies to build up their own expertise in-house.”
Among some of the initiatives that could help here is a new alliance that was formed earlier this year as part of an effort to advance the development of the country’s cyber security profession. It brings together a number of established councils, chartered professional and certification bodies, academics and industry representative groups. Founding members include several organisations operating under a Royal Charter who are able to grant chartered status within their discipline.
Their overall aim is to provide clarity around the skills, competences and career pathways within the cyber security profession. The initial objective is to support the National Cyber Security Strategy and provide a focal point for advising policy, including the intent to recognise professionals through chartered status.
Alliance members offer a range of established expertise and disciplines, and each is said to have a leadership role in underpinning UK resilience in the digital environment. They currently include: BCS; the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences; CREST; the Engineering Council; IAAC; The
Institution of Analysts and Programmers; IET; Institute of Information Security Professionals; Institute of Measurement and Control; ISACA; (ISC)2; techUK; the Security Institute; and The Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.
Among some of the common objectives, members have agreed to provide a forum for benchmarking and shared standards for cyber security professional excellence; enable the development of the specialist skills and capabilities that will allow the UK to keep pace with rapidly evolving cyber risks; and enable a self-sustaining pipeline of talent providing the skills to meet our national needs.
Speaking at the time, the BCS’ then director of standards, Jeremy Barlow, said: “Collaboration at all levels is necessary to protect the public from current and future cyber threats. This collaborative development is therefore not only a
functional necessity, but speaks to a necessary culture change for organisations and individuals working in cyber. As with other established professions, there will be places where we compete, but we must collaborate and share as a diverse professional community for the good of everyone to ensure we do not let down the people we ultimately serve.”
The hottest future skill?
As well as cyber security, ‘Big Data’ is another area where the UK aims to be seen as a global leader, and presents another opportunity where IT professionals with fresh skills are desperately needed.
Citing the Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey, MCSA’s Timms says that Big Data and analytics are top of the skills shortage critical list for the fourth year running. “This is having a significant impact on all organisations, with two-thirds of IT leaders saying it is preventing them from keeping up with the pace of change. Unless we tackle this shortage the potential of these technologies will never be realised.
“[Big Data] and analytics tools are developing rapidly – we measure more now than ever before. It is inevitable that this data will present opportunities and, when interpreted well, deliver new solutions. However, these tools are only as good as the individuals using them and therefore, if the potential of these technologies is to be fully realised, it is imperative that as an industry we continue develop staff and arm them with the necessary skills.”
Reed Technology’s Gardner concurs, saying that while Big Data has been around for a number of years now, the challenge for the industry has been how to utilise it properly and effectively. “This is the challenge for data scientists – a role which has grown in interest four times over in the last five years according to Reed Global’s State of Skills research. They have to convert Big Data into actionable insight, and this takes a great deal of skill. It will be up to data scientists to decide what questions to ask, and how that data will be used, so that companies can continue to profit from the wealth that customer and business data brings.”
Given the need for such highly specialised skills, are there enough appropriate courses and training experts out there at present to meet the challenges of 2019 and beyond?
Gardner says the changing nature of the tech industry means that companies are always playing “catch-up” in educating their entire workforce. “In this respect, it is up to employees to investigate which programmes and tools are going to define the next few years in the industry and master them. We find that there is a lot of skills-sharing through mentoring going on in the professional world, before there is formal training – which takes a while to define and setup.
“In this fast paced world, the tech employees that have a hunger to learn and get a kick from using new tech to create and streamline processes will thrive. It’s not an industry where employees can stand still.”
Referencing Reed’s State of Skills study once more, Gardner says the products and tools used by technology professionals over the past 10 years have fluctuated and evolved rapidly. He reckons software and solutions used for data collection, visualisation, storage and interrogation will only increase in importance as digitalisation gathers pace.
“This constant evolution adds to the skills gap that currently exists. Yet, this also poses opportunities to young, ‘homegrown’ talent. If employees and graduates are willing to be passionate and show a real desire to learn, immersing themselves in training, then there is no reason why the skills gap cannot be bridged.”
Bob Nott from PTT says apprenticeships have a major role in ensuring a pool of talent is created to meet the future skills requirements of the ICT sector. However, he also points out that there is also a lack of trainers who have both the appropriate background in the ICT sector and the necessary training skills.
Nott claims that PTT has successfully demonstrated the use of blended learning to overcome these challenges in supporting apprenticeships in the telecoms sector. He says: “A blend of e-learning courses with online tutor support and assessment allows the flexible delivery of technical knowledge while making the most efficient use of available trainers.”
Despite all the uncertainty that lies ahead and fears over a possible ‘Techxit’, the industry commentators we spoke to are not as pessimistic about the UK’s future skills prospects as some in 2016 were.
Iqbal from Robert Walters says: “It’s important to remember that digital tech companies in London are the most connected in Europe, and this coupled with the opportunity to work alongside some the most advanced tech talent in the world, and the success stories of start-ups such as Deliveroo, will continue to be a big pull for overseas candidates.
“With a growing network of tech start-ups, and hubs forming in Shoreditch, Manchester and Leeds, companies will need to improve their work-life environment and culture as well as enhance their employer brand in order to attract and retain the best talent.
Gardner also remains optimistic and says the UK currently attracts a “significant proportion” of overseas inward investment into Europe. He reckons that if a positive agreement is made with the UK remaining part of the single market, then there should be little impact on the industry with foreign workers being encouraged to stay in the UK and choosing to migrate here.
And of course within all this, training remains crucial to the success of a digital Britain. Timms says MCSA is fortunate in having access to a huge pool of skills and talented IT professionals but adds that, as UK Plc, we need to take care to carefully manage the current situation around Brexit in order to ensure that position is maintained.
“Training and development of existing staff will become even more crucial for businesses as they look to overcome staffing issues brought about by Brexit. Looking ahead, it is vital that companies maintain their investment in skills training so that they are able to meet the challenges set out by their customers, whatever direction we take, Brexit or no Brexit.”