Global competition for tech talent hots up

Policy makers around the world are pushing hard on immigration and investment levers in a bid to attract the best digital skills.

Global competition for tech talent hots up
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There was one inescapable and, perhaps, startling conclusion from recent research by professional networking site LinkedIn: over the next five years, 150 million new technology jobs will be created across the world. Now the question is: who is going to fill those vacancies as the battle intensifies for overseas talent?By 2030, there will be a global shortage of more than 85 million tech workers, representing $8.5 trillion in lost annual revenue, according to Los Angeles-based management consulting firm Korn Ferry.Among the economies expected to be hit hardest are Brazil, Indonesia and Japan, which could face shortages of up to 18 million workers apiece. The United States and Russia are expected to be short six million workers each, while China could face a deficit of 12 million.“It’s pure supply and demand,” says Alan Guarino, a vice-chairman at Korn Ferry. “Companies are paying more, they’re hiring more, but there is still a shortage of high-skilled tech workers. Technology is the thread that runs across every aspect of business.”As IBM's 2021 'Global AI Adoption Index' emphasises, the demand for tech skills is not the problem: it's the supply. “The need for AI has been accelerated by changing business needs due to the global pandemic,” said IBM after a survey of more than 5,500 business leaders across China, the US, UK, EU, India, Singapore and Latin America, and 39% of leaders identified lack of digital skills as the primary barrier to AI adoption.Many nations, including the UK, are embarking – with varying degrees of success – on programmes aimed at enhancing the tech skills of indigenous populations, particularly the young, as well as trying to upskill existing workforces. But while such schemes might offer hope of a medium- to long-term solution, they cannot answer the immediate, pressing needs.Research among HR professionals and development executives by online edtech company FourthRev, found that 81% of British companies would look abroad in the coming year for the digital skills they need if, as feared, the necessary home-grown talent could not be found.The UK, along with the US, Australia and others, have made moves this year to fast-track visas in a bid to attract the tech skills they need. The British, though, have a particularly acute problem because of the end of free movement from the EU following Brexit.Richard Leslie, CEO of The Sourcing Hub, a business development consultancy helping UK firms with their tech delivery capability, says Britain’s secession from the EU was always going to “worsen the long-standing issue of the digital skills shortage, which has seen startups count on an influx of foreign labour for years”.Over half of tech founders, he adds, believe that Brexit has posed the biggest threat to London’s booming digital industry, chiefly due to the increased risk of missing out on the best international talent.Not that Europe has been the only source of migrant techies operating in Britain. The UK and the US, particularly, have frequently turned to SE Asia and, especially, India for the skills so much in demand. But India itself is now facing a very real shortage of digital skills.A report commissioned by Amazon Web Services (AWS) found that India’s current workforce comprised only 12% digitally skilled employees – a number, the report said, that would need to increase nine-fold by 2025 to keep pace with technological advances and demand.
India successfully tapped into the first wave of IT demand, said AWS, but the new skill requirement is  changing rapidly and leading to the gap in demand and supply of talent.Things are little better in Australia where a report compiled by Deloitte for the tech industry's trade body ACS (Australian Computer Society), found the “significant” technology skills shortage threatened to constrain economic growth in the years ahead. It was estimated that 60,000 more IT workers would be needed per year over the next five years in a country where, in 2019, only 7,000 students graduated with an IT degree.

Attracting mobile tech talent

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has branded the workforce skills shortage as the “single biggest challenge facing the Australian economy” in recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, while employer surveys show it has become their top concern.China, too, is looking to fill its growing skills gap with immigrant workers, prompting Taiwan to order recruitment companies to remove all listings for jobs in the mainland this spring.“Due to geopolitical tension between the US and China, China's semiconductor development has suffered some setbacks and as a result China has become more aggressive in poaching and targeting top Taiwanese chip talent to help build a self-sufficient supply chain,” said the Ministry of Labour in Taipei.Even Singapore's bid to establish itself as a regional tech hub is stumbling amid a boom in jobs and a shortage of suitable candidates, which can only be filled by expats coming to the city-state, according to Ravi Menon, managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Almost two-thirds of the estimated 25,000 tech workforce in Singapore's financial sector already hail from abroad.Meanwhile, in the US, the election of Joe Biden has brought major changes to the immigration policies that underwent much tightening during the Donald Trump presidency. Most importantly for the tech industry, the H1B skilled worker visa has been fully restored, but Google, Apple, Amazon, Intel and much of the rest of Silicon Valley are still not happy.The tech giants are opposing legal moves to bar spouses of skilled immigrants on the visas from gaining lawful employment in the US – a move that would impact at least 90,000 spouses, almost all of them women.“The stakes are high, and not just for tech companies that would struggle to hire skilled workers if their spouses were barred from working,” says Steve S. Rao, a board member of the New American Economy, which campaigns for immigration reform. “Banning these highly educated workers from using their talents would hurt our entire economy, lowering GDP by around $7.5 billion per year, and robbing the federal government of $1.9 billion in tax revenues.”

Creating the right conditions

In mainland Europe, the likes of France, Germany and even the four Nordic nations – long regarded as magnets for tech talent – are finding it increasingly difficult to find they skills they need.But there are exceptions, according to the IMF: “Countries like Israel and Poland have become success stories when it comes to filling tech jobs, in part because both had a high domestic tech skill base to begin with.
“Israel has more start-ups per capita than any other  country. Poland also boasts a strong start-up community along with a highly educated workforce with lots of English speakers. These made Warsaw an attractive location for Google to launch a new campus in 2016.”In the UK, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced the launch in his spring Budget of a fast-track tech visa in a bid to make Britain the “best place in the world for high-growth, innovative companies”. More details are due in July but Mr Sunak described it as a “new, unsponsored, points-based visa to attract the best and most promising international talent in science, research and tech”, with improved visa processes for scale-ups and entrepreneurs, and “radically simplified bureaucracy” for high-skilled visa applications.The necessity of attracting foreign talent was emphasised in a report from the Learning & Work Institute think-tank, which warned that the UK was heading for a digital skills shortage “disaster” after data revealed the number of teenagers taking IT subjects at GCSE level has dropped by 40%.Yet the opportunities for young techies are vast. According to the annual report from Tech Nation – a government-backed agency for tech entrepreneurs, which administers the Global Talent Visa – the UK's digital tech sector grew almost six times faster than the rest of the economy between 2019-20. And that growth has accelerated over the past year as the pandemic obliged organisations to make large-scale switches to digital: recent research by Tech Nation and the government’s Digital Economy Council found that 10% of all current vacancies were for tech jobs.In the 12 months to April, technology recruiter Harvey Nash says it saw a 112% increase in new tech roles, with solutions architects, business analysts and Java developers in particularly high demand.Bev White, CEO of Harvey Nash, says that research data show IT leaders are now putting their plans into action and that, given the shortage of technology talent within the country, recruiters are having to search further afield to fill vacancies. “Due to a lack of homegrown skills, UK tech continues to recruit overseas talent, which is largely attracted to the South and London,” she said. “In fact, almost half (46%) of tech professionals in the South and London reported that they had moved to the UK from abroad.”Among the nation's 76,500 fintech workers, 42% come from abroad, according to a recent report by Innovate Finance. To Nigel Bridges, founding CEO at London-based analytics firm Beacon, this demonstrates the reliance that the UK’s tech sector has on foreign talent and how important these workers are to its continued success and growth.“With increasing numbers of the world’s most highly-skilled digital professionals able to come and live and work in the UK, the nation is sure to consolidate its position as a global centre for tech and innovation,” he said.Mr Bridges also pointed to another government initiative aimed at boosting indigenous skills: the Help to Grow scheme, which will offer up to 130,000 smaller companies across the country free digital skills training and a 50% government contribution towards productivity software up to £5,000.

Education and reskilling

The Westminster government, in fact, insists it is taking effective action to address the data skills gap, introducing such measures as a degree conversion course programme in data science and AI, and the rolling out of ‘digital boot camps’ by the Department for Education in all English regions that include courses in data analysis.The government has also launched the National Data Strategy which, says Minister of State for Media and Data John Whittingdale, will test effective ways to teach foundational data skills to all undergraduates. “We will also be looking at further ways, using the insight from the research, to help provide the data skills industry requires whilst recognising that this should be a joint effort between industry, government, academia and other training providers,” he adds.“I want to ensure that businesses across all sectors can get the data-literate employees they need. Many companies are experiencing real difficulties in finding such employees. With demand growing, there is an urgent need to intensify efforts to boost the number of skilled workers.”Few business leaders across the world would disagreewith those sentiments.

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