Might a lack of joined-up thinking undermine UK high-tech ambitions?

Old Street: the UK's tech epicentre

Old Street: the UK’s tech epicentre

Over the past week both Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson have offered up visions of economic success founded on new technology. Yet, as the CBI points out in a new report pinpointing the dearth of talent needed to  make such dreams a reality, politicians often appear to ignore the realities of a situation. In its new report, Engineering our Future,  the CBI calls for significant action to make a career in the key disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths more attractive and easier to pursue. The report points out that these are the skills needed to underpin the Government’s stated focus on the tech, environmental, engineering and manufacturing industries that will shape the country’s future and is calling for a cut in tuition fees, new courses and inter-disciplinary qualifications to allow those skills to flourish.

The calls comes as Mayor Johnson outlined his desire to make London the ‘tech capital of the world’ during an event with industry figures at the high-profile Government endorsed Techhub accelerator at Old Street in East London which also saw the Mayor promote London Technology Week which will feature a series of 25 events across the capital Week from 16-20 June.

Johnson said: “There is nowhere to rival London for tech firms to thrive and grow – we have the talent, the investors, and the entrepreneurial spirit. Our tech offer now spans the capital in its entirety, from Tottenham to Croydon and from Wembley to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I want London’s world-class tech sector to be as well known around the globe as our tourism, arts and financial services – it certainly deserves to be. London is where it all comes together. We need to build on this impressive growth and champion London as the global leader for ambitious tech companies.”

The call comes in the wake of David Cameron’s pledge to develop world leading technological infrastructure in the UK including nationwide 5G broadband during a trip to tech jamboree CEBIT and a £73 million investment in the Internet of Things. Cameron might have wished he hadn’t chosen an event in Hanover to make such claims because, according to newspaper reports, he was openly mocked by German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the UK’s lethargic roll-out of nationwide high speed broadband.

It would also appear that the Government may be delivering such  pronouncements while ignoring the question of whether the UK has the skills and resources needed to deliver them in the first place. Not only has the 5G protocol yet to be defined, the government has previous on this score as the business case for the controversial HS2 rail line between London and a handful of cities in the Midlands and Northern England farcically assumes an unlimited supply of skilled labour and suitable development sites in the areas it serves. It’s hardly joined-up thinking.

All is not lost however, according to the CBI report, which makes a number of recommendations which it feels can help the UK become a world leader in the key progressive commercial sectors of technology, the environment and advanced engineering and manufacturing. These recommendations include:

  • A reduction of fees on some STEM courses to attract more students and the development of one-year crossover courses at 18 for young people to switch back to STEM in preparation for a related degree – an approach used by the legal profession after graduation
  • New collaborative training solutions to progress apprenticeships and retraining to meet the pressing need for skilled technicians
  • 6th forms, colleges and universities to set and report on gender diversity targets to boost women’s participation in key subjects like physics and maths
  • Use of UK Commission for Employment and Skills funding in key sectors to help firms retrain older workers in STEM shortage areas.

“Growth and jobs in the future will depend on the UK having a workforce that can exploit new technologies and discoveries. The growing skills vacuum is threatening the recovery, as demand from firms is outstripping supply,” says Katja Hall, CBI chief policy director. “Highly-skilled workers are essential for our growth sectors and it will be those young people with science and maths who will go on to become the engineers and new tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow. The government must explore if it’s possible to reduce the costs of some of these courses and create a one-year crossover qualification at 18 for those who turned away from science and maths after GCSEs, but now want to take a related degree. But it is increasingly clear that the really problematic shortages are at skilled technician level. We do have to play a long game on skills, creating more apprenticeships, but we also need policies for the short-term, including retraining existing workers with in-demand skills in key sectors.”