How can the UK bridge the tech skills gap?

UK companies are suffering from a serious shortage of crucial IT skills. Fixing it may take some time, but AWS has some ideas.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

Many companies regularly complain that the UK is suffering from a serious shortage of staff with the right tech skills. Cloud computing company Amazon Web Services (AWS) is one firm looking to boost the numbers of new tech workers and encouraging others to return to the industry after a break. ZDNet spoke to AWS UK MD Gavin Jackson to find out about its efforts to narrow the skills gap.

ZDNet: Can you tell me about your digital skills initiative?

Jackson: Actually, we have had a number of digital skills platforms. There has been a huge increase in the UK in the need for digital skills and really, we have to take some of the responsibility for that.

One of the big drivers of this has been the cloud. The number of companies that have been born, or reborn into the cloud is phenomenal, so now there are millions of businesses using the cloud to reconnect with their customers, unbundle entire industries and so on.

We see that industries are being redefined by software and converging in the cloud.

And of course, the other megatrend is around the Internet of Thinks (IoT), machine learning, artificial intelligence and things like that. All of them spawned from, and converging into, the cloud. It's quite a unique time.

Digital technology is now the fuel of economies at a national level. And I think that technology has the power to be the single biggest force multiplier for economies.

SEE: Special report: IT jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (free PDF)

So what's my personal feeling of how the UK is set up now as an economy and as an attractive place to build a company, to build a career, to be a competitive force in the world? I think today we are an attractive prospect for things like inward investment, access to international markets and, of course, talent. But I think that as a nation we are still leaving too much for best intentions.

A big factor, of course, is the government and how it sees digital technology and the digital agenda. Surprisingly, technology doesn't live inside an individual department for digital strategy and it feels to me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the impact that digital technology is having on industrial strategy. I think perhaps that that is a missed opportunity.

Isn't it true that the UK government doesn't quite understand the full significance of the impact of digital technology on the economy?

I think the government is very aware of the significance of technology but the difference between best intentions and having a plan to address the issues raised is significant.

It is well known that we have a skills gap. If you look at the number of technology jobs that need to be filled and the number of people being trained there's an obvious discrepancy. But I think the way that is approached suggests that government don't believe, or understand, the importance of technology in the nation's industrial strategy.

I think the fact that digital today sits inside the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport suggests that digital is being seen more as an element of consumerisation than as a force multiplier for every industry.

So could the answer be to have it in one department?

Well yes, it could. If you consider the way we think about the world, it is to try to serve customers in a specific way. And if you think about it, the customer is the workforce, the future workforce, and we have to think about how we would solve that particular challenge. And we do this through our programmes.

So, we try to lead, and we would like to be able to do more and so we talk to government because we would like government to lead too.

Some would believe that on this issue, the government underestimates the challenge and, perhaps, it's importance?

I wouldn't say that. I believe, and we at Amazon believe, that the UK is just so attractive a market. We want to continue to invest here. We've just launched our third Availability Zone -- which is a cluster of data centres -- here in the UK.

SEE: Cloud v. data center decision (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

I think the UK is a fast adopter of technology and we have over 100,000 customers here to perhaps prove it.

How do you find the speed of adoption here in the UK in comparison to other European countries?

Well the way we see it, the USA is probably two-to-three years ahead of pretty much every other market with exception of one or two, one of which is the UK. We tend to be a fast-follower of US trends.

We adopt technologies quickly. Companies set up and establish organisations here in the UK as a springboard to international markets.

I think that the conditions in the UK are still pretty good. We have an attractive and accommodating regulatory market here in every sector. There is still growing access to capital here. And there is still great access to talent. What we want to do is ensure that for the long term.

We can talk about the skills and so on, but immigration plays a big part in it too. It's still a great place to build a career. London and the UK has attracted some of the best talent from across Europe and, indeed, from across the world.

So, you see our ability to attract talent as truly international?

I do. That's another pillar of this digital skills gap that we have and can close.

I categorise that across three type of journey, if I can put it that way. The journeys I'm referring to are the people who are re-starting their lives and careers. And the re:Start programme is one of the programmes we at AWS have to cater for that.

And what we have pledged is that we will train 1,000 people from two separate cohorts to begin with, one being the Prince's Trust. The aim there is to attract people -- typically from disadvantaged backgrounds -- and give them the skills and the training, they need to become job-ready.

And we're partnering with our own partners and our customer ecosystem who are then taking a number of these people into full-time employment.

We do that with the Prince's Trust, but we also do it with the military as well as the Ministry of Defence.

We are trying to reignite and restart and retrain folks who are leaving the service. And so, when they leave the service, they and their families are eligible to take some re-training from us and we also ready them to re-join the workplace.

We ready them with cloud skills and other new skills, and then connect them to our partners and our customers who then take them onto work experience and full-time employment.

Did the Ministry of Defence and the others come to you or did you go to them?

We went to them. It was a fundamental belief that there is another cohort to our technology and that we really need to increase the size of the pool and re-train the pool.

And that comes from various different angles. The reason we chose the Prince's Trust was because we could see that there's a sizable group of people who would be able to contribute or find their way into these sorts of jobs and this new economy that we believe we are helping create.

We believe that is good because it helps to get more people into that overall pool and because the alternatives for those people could be quite grim.

SEE: Interview tips: How to land your next tech job (free PDF)

And it's the same thing with military service leavers because we see, time and time again, that when you leave the service there is very little help available to get you back into employment. Many military service leavers, who have served their country, just sort of fall away into obscurity.

So, for these two cohorts it's the coalition of the motivated. They're supermotivated to get back into employment. We are motivated because there is a motivated cohort who can do it. And our customers like it because they're solving the skills gap.

That's one thing that we're doing. Something else that we are piloting at the moment, and we will see how it evolves, is a returners' programme.

It's not specifically for returning mothers but it is for anyone who has taken a career break. You can read into that that we are trying to help people who have taken a career break and there will be a large population of returning mothers there. But it is for anybody who has taken a career break and the aim of it is to provide the right training and the right conditions for returning.

We have just kicked that one off.

What about the male to female balance? Do you have targets there?

We don't have targets as such. We just want to get the best people but what I can tell you is that for the last three cohorts in a row the proportion has been 50/50. We're pretty encourage by that. Not satisfied but encouraged.

Now that's what we are doing with re-Start but we do know that there are tens or hundreds of thousands of IT professionals who haven't, necessarily, kept their skills up to date. Too often we find them being made redundant from companies and their skills aren't relevant anymore, and so on. Now we're helping customers to retrain their people.

That's a programme that we have been pushing at AWS, to get them re-trained and certified with AWS skills and cloud skills and machine-learning skills and all the relevant skills that our customers tell us that they need.

And we train tens of thousands of them every year and so far, we are at tens of thousands to date, just here in the UK.

There a number of mechanisms for that. We have formal, classroom-based training. We have a digital, mass-online training platform that people can take -- we have a free tier for that as well for people who want to do it at their own pace.

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