How the UK can capitalise on the single biggest solution to its £60bn tech skills gap

Headshot of Sheridan Ash, CEO and Founder of TechSheCan

How the UK can capitalise on the single biggest solution to its £60bn tech skills gap

Sheridan Ash, Founder and Co-CEO of Tech She Can on the short and long term measures needed

3 minute read

“If there were as many women working in tech roles as men, there would not be a tech skills gap in the UK.”

That stark analysis, from Sheridan Ash MBE, Founder and Co-CEO of Tech She Can, highlights the extent to which the UK is failing to capitalise on the single biggest solution to a shortage of skilled tech workers.

There is a numerical point to this. Improving on research findings that only 3% of young women see a career in tech as their first choice will grow the talent pool. But it will also bring qualities as well as quantity.

“It’s not just about women. It’s about improving diversity over all,” says Ash. “If organisations were better at attracting and retaining diverse groups of women and advancing them into leadership positions they would see better innovations and growth. They would have a better culture and products and services that are more likely to appeal to everyone.”

Ash, who is also Technology Innovation Leader at PwC UK and a board member of the Institute of Coding, says bridging the skills gap will not just help organisations deal with current challenges and deliver vital long-term transformation, it will also boost the UK economy.

“Businesses don’t have enough people and enough skills to do all the things that they want to do. And right now, that digital skills gap is estimated to cost the UK economy £60 billion per year,” she says.

“Organisations are starting to see their growth impacted by not having enough of the right skills.”

The challenge here is two-fold. Not only are organisations wrestling with the challenge of recruiting and retaining the tech skills they need to deliver on growth ambitions, they are also missing out on productivity gains from increasing the overall digital literacy of the workforce.

“Almost all jobs are tech jobs to some extent,” says Ash. “Over 80% of jobs advertised in the UK require some digital skills and the lack of available talent is the biggest factor holding back growth and productivity.”

So what can businesses do to overcome the skills gap?

“You’ve got to look at short-term and long-term measures,” says Ash. “Right now organisations should be targeting women with boot camps and apprenticeships, offering to reskill them. Appealing to returners and women coming back from time out of the workforce.”

“Within four to six months, people can gain a high level of the tech skills if they have the right aptitude. Examples might be driving what I call citizen-led innovation. That includes doing things like automating manual tasks, moving away from spreadsheets and embracing data visualisation and analytics to enable better, faster information sharing and decision-making.”

Beyond that, it can take 18 months of “more deep tech apprenticeships to train people for technology roles such as cloud or cyber security specialists or software engineers,” she says. “These aren’t degrees, and can be made more bespoke to the tech needed by the company hiring the apprentices. Apprentices are in the workforce on projects, again within four to six months."

However, many organisations are not taking advantage of support available. All large employers with payrolls over £3m can claim back the cost of training employees in areas such as technology via the UK Government’s Paying Apprenticeship levy. Yet between 2019 and 2022 UK employers handed back £3.3bn of unused levy to the UK Treasury.

“Imagine the millions of women who could be trained with those billions of unused levy,” says Ash. “We’ve just got 75 women in a data academy and we’ve used a £1.5 million levy donation from a couple of our big employers to fund this, because you can donate your unused levy.”

Addressing the long-term issue must start in schools, getting more girls interested in technology by more effectively communicating the kinds of roles and careers available to them and making smarter use of relatable role models.

“We’re teaching girls about the positive impact they can have in tech careers, for example how tech is used to solve our environmental issues, and the types of careers you can have.”

Businesses have an opportunity to work more closely with government and education to ensure the curriculum is fit for purpose and the subject is more inspiring and more relevant to the future careers of students and the needs of businesses.

In line with revamping courses, the education system should also give technology compulsory status alongside English and maths, says Ash - such is its importance to almost all jobs and the economy.

“There is no single solution, but change has to happen,” says Ash. “Everybody competing for the same talent is unsustainable. Organisations must do what they can to upskill their workforce and then collaborate to grow the overall talent pool for the long term.”

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Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Managing Partner & Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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