The UK is teetering on the edge of a tech skills shortage that could explode at any moment. The scale of the problem is vast: at any one time, there is a shortfall of around 40,000 people, which is costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year. A Digital Skills for the UK Economy report released by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills at the start of 2016 found that across the board of businesses in all sectors, says 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are suffering from an IT skill gap. A British Chambers of Commerce study pegs this even higher, with three in four UK businesses reporting a digital skills shortage to some extent.

What’s more, advancements in technology are accelerating at such a phenomenal rate that experts say we’re likely to experience 200 centuries worth of progress in the next century alone. We, as humans can adapt, but not in a way that will match such exponential growth. It is therefore imperative that we act quickly and focus on creating the right multigenerational teams that will help us fill the hole, supported by the right tech, the right space, and in particular the right culture.

There are five crucial elements we need to consider:

  1. Stop stealing! 

The skills gap I mention above is widening as I write; research by Engineering UK claims an additional 1.8m technically qualified people will be needed by 2025. But instead of focusing on growing new talent, we’re satisfying ourselves with stealing from the UK’s limited pool of tech talent. It’s a short-term mentality, and the shortage of applicants for jobs is leading to wage inflation, rising costs, reduced innovation and the UK tech industry will become less competitive in an increasingly competitive global market.

  1. We need to find and train new people

The UK’s burgeoning tech skills crisis is a national priority, or at least it should be, and while there is much the UK government can do, it has been slow on the uptake. Only 15,000 UK students took a computing or ICT A-Level in 2016, accounting for less than 2% of the overall exams sat. In fact the chances are that students graduating in the near future will be entering the workplace with a distinct lack of STEM skills.

  1. Grow tech talent in-house

Instead of shipping in tech and digital talent from elsewhere, businesses should be up-skilling the staff they already have so that tech expertise is embedded within all functions of the business. This is the only way in which digital transformation can truly happen. Brocades’ 2017 Global Digital Transformation Skills Study says there is an urgent need to spend more time on increasing skills, from 15% of time that is currently spent on this to 22%. On-the-job training is also important, to help broaden experience and encourage employees to try new things.

  1. Learn from others

Luckily, there are some pioneers already making ground. Goldman Sachs, for example, is running a global initiative called 10,000 Women that provides women entrepreneurs around the world with a business and management education, mentoring and networking, and access to capital. To date, the initiative has reached over 10,000 women from across 56 countries. FDM, a FTSE 250 company, takes UK graduates, ex-military personnel, and those wishing to change careers or re-enter the workforce. FDM matches its IT training to the latest needs of industry to make their trainees effective on the job from day one. Warwickshire County Council runs conference-style events such as ‘Google Days’ where IT sets up a series of stands and workshops for employees to pop in and get up-skilled.

  1. Get the technology, space and culture right

To fill the gap, businesses will need to reach out to new segments and attract and grow talent from many walks of life, of all ages and backgrounds. Creating the right physical space is important in attracting such diverse people, and at Citrix we coined the phrase ‘work is not a place’. Nowadays, people want to be able to work wherever, whenever and however they like. Technology is a big part of this: people expect access to the best tools, and the ability to work remotely.

Getting the culture right is also critical, in a way that talks to all generations and encourages people to try new things. One of the softer cultural values that will be critical as we bring on board new generations and encourage older ones to retrain will be that of building confidence. In fact, at Citrix, ‘curiosity’ and ‘courage’ were recently added to the company core values, to create a safe environment for people to be able to learn, to try new things, to fail and then to succeed.

While the tech sector is experiencing accelerated growth, organisations need to be set-up to empower and up-skill people from the inside. A culture that embodies ‘a reason for being’ is what ultimately connects people to their place of work, and is what will help the UK to build a multigenerational workforce and bridge its growing IT skills gap.

Thank you to the Cambridge Wireless team for inviting me to speak on this topic in more detail at the recent Inclusive Innovation conference.