Jennette Arnold
London assembly member for North East London — fighting your corner at City Hall
More talent is the tech tonic London needs

More talent is the tech tonic London needs

Last week I joined my colleagues who sit on the Economy Committee on a visit to Tech City in my constituency to discuss how the Mayor could better support its business.

Promoting and developing London’s world leading, fast growing, digital economy is a key priority for business, City Hall and the London Enterprise Panel. The London Enterprise Panel has made digital, creative, science & technology one of its four strategic priorities, and is focussed on fuelling a more diverse economy through investment in growth of the digital economy. It highlights both connectivity, and development of talent, as key areas upon which to focus efforts.

Digital growth does not feature prominently in the Mayor’s Economic Development plan – indeed the bulk of growth of the tech sector has occurred since it was first drafted. But the Mayor has had a growing focus on promoting tech growth over the past few years: digital infrastructure features prominently in the London Infrastructure Plan 2050; and the Mayor has begun to take action to improve connectivity and access to broadband for SMEs in the capital. The relatively newly launched Tech.London website provides a portal to the Mayor’s work to promote the tech industry.

However, I believe the Mayor came extremely late to tackling the issue of poor connectivity. And he risks missing the curve, when it comes to many of the other challenges facing the sector. His Tech London resource bank has a connectivity and start-up focus, with little mention of significant sectoral issues such as the tech skills gap; lack of funding for scale-ups; and lack of diversity in the sector. These require focussed attention at a strategic level, if London is to maintain sustainable growth in its digital economy.

Several barriers to growth have been identified by key figures in the sector, some of which threaten to have a significant impact upon Tech City’s economic potential. A shortage of investment at the scale-up stage (between start-up and seed stage), lack of gender diversity, and a shortage of affordable properties are all cited as growing problems. And poor connectivity continues to limit productivity. However, by far the most significant issue, as reported by those in the sector, is the vast talent shortage.

As recently highlighted by the LEP, in their London 2036 report, London’s technology skills shortage prevents Londoners gaining maximum benefit from London’s tech economy.A certain level of skills shortage may be expected for a young fast-growing sector. However, the technology skills gap poses a risk for tech growth in the capital. There is also significant concern that young Londoners, particularly those living in my constituency, are not taking up tech opportunities on their doorstep.

On our visit, local businesses told us that skills they need young people to have extend beyond coding and developing, to include UX (user experience), Cyber Security, digital marketing, and business operations and development.

While opportunities to increase access to digital skills, and the digital sector, include initiatives within the formal education system, in many schools computing is still being taught by non-specialist staff, and there is certainly scope for more action.

Beyond the classroom, more innovative solutions are a part of the mix. Code clubs for kids and “hack-a-thons” have been established to promote technology more widely to children. And companies such as Technology Will Save Us, have created coding kits, to teach children the rudimentals of computer programming in an informal way.

There are also growing numbers of apprenticeships in technology. However, in their ‘Trained in London’ report, my colleagues on the London Assembly Economy Committee found that London’s tech sector had less than 0.4 apprenticeships per 100 employees, making it the second lowest performing sector in the capital.

What was clear from my visit was that the Mayor could be doing a lot more to support a sector in London that has become extremely successful but is now ready to move onto the next stage of its development. He was late to recognise the issue and has since not done enough. The tech industry in Hackney is crying out for better tech education in schools, apprenticeships, affordable office space and improved connectivity. I urge Boris Johnson to take the industry’s concerns seriously and make a clear commitment to Tech City.