London Technology Week: Why we need to focus on tech and digital education

Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw on why the UK needs to take precautions against a potential house of cards

Last night I was interviewed about Tech London Advocates’ latest survey, which shows that a lack of talent is the biggest threat to the London tech industry’s future development. This is one of the main themes that is emerging from London Technology Week and the private sector must come together to address it.

Since the inception of Tech City in 2010, London’s tech scene has experienced nothing less than explosive growth; not only is Tech City Europe’s largest digital cluster, but between 2009 and 2012 the total number of tech firms across London rose by 100%. Then, in the following 12 months, a further 15,000 firms joined the Tech City party.

Sourcing attractive talent for your start-up

Impressive indeed. But growth on this scale will only be sustainable in the long-term if budding young firms have access to the brightest and best talent – both home-grown and from overseas.

Why? Because firstly, without a steady supply of talent, existing firms will fail to fulfil their potential in their journey from start-up to scale-up. As a result, they may well start looking to alternative host cities, such as Berlin, New York or Tel Aviv.

Secondly, without stand-out talent, new start-ups will struggle to distinguish themselves in an increasingly bustling market. As a result we risk the London tech industry becoming a case of quantity over quality.

Within the tech sector much has been made of the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa scheme, announced by David Cameron in December 2013, which allows foreign nationals with exceptional IT skills to work in the UK.

This is a good start. However with Tech City only able to endorse up to 200 of these visas a year – and there being 30,000 tech job vacancies in London – they do not provide the long-term answer to the talent shortage question.

Educating our youth

The solution to the tech industry’s talent shortage therefore lies closer to home. And to ensure a steady stream of home-grown British tech talent, we must be placing far greater focus on tech and digital education than we currently do.

Take Silicon Valley for example. Supported by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, the Valley also boasts its own university, along with strong historical ties to Stanford and MIT.

These connections and partnerships ensure the region is furnished aplenty with a pipeline of well-trained graduates, who are equipped with the skills to develop into the next generation of leading coders, designers, engineers and innovators.

This isn’t to say that here in the UK progress on the education and training front isn’t being made. Many of the leaders in this field have been vocal during London Technology Week. None more so than Sherry Coutu, whose Silicon Valley comes to the UK group held a Science Summit yesterday at the Royal Society of Physicians to raise the profile of STEM subjects.

Tech London Advocate Kathryn Parsons is founder of Decoded, an organisation that seeks to instil ‘digital enlightenment’ by providing a fundamental understanding of technologies behind the screen. By offering courses in which students can learn to code or interact with data in a day, Decoded is challenging the perception that coding or data analysis are cumbersome and overly technical vocations. Parsons has been hailing the importance of coding at a wide range of events this week and spoke to the nation’s media at Monday’s launch.

The Makers Academy is another fantastic example of innovative British tech education, whereby students are taught to code in 12 weeks on a course that specifically prepares them for entry level jobs with London’s top technology companies.

But this handful of specialist institutions cannot carry the burden of tech education all by themselves. We must be looking to foster the next generation of tech talent in the classroom from an early age, through university and further education, and beyond.

This is the philosophy shared by Apps for Good, who realise that traditional schooling is seeing students ill-prepared for the digital world. In essence, tech must become part of Britain’s educational culture.

Four years ago London had the vision of transforming itself into a global digital hub, and today we can proudly say this dream is being realised.

Now we’ve got so far, let’s not let a shortage of talent see us fall off our perch.

Tech London Advocates founder Russ Shaw will be blogging for Startups daily throughout London Tech Week. Read his first, second and third installments now.

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