Any government facing an upheaval to the national economic model as profound as Brexit needs to find some new stimuli to apply. The industrial strategy unveiled this week by Prime Minister Theresa May included classic public sector plays, like upgrading infrastructure and encouraging trade, plus some new ones, like investing in science, research and technology. It also made developing skills, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) one of the ten pillars of that strategy.
There were several notable features of this component, not least the emphasis placed on “levelling the playing field for the half of young people who do not go to university”. That means a combination of technical education and lifelong learning. The second of these reflects findings in a recent SAS survey of 2,000 UK millennials aged 16 to 34 in which more than three-quarters (78 per cent) expected to keep learning new skills throughout their lives to keep up to date with industry knowledge.
Incentivising more students to take on STEM subjects will be covered in detail by a review carried out by Professor Sir Adrian Smith, but the Government laid out £170 milllion to help build a new system of technical education. This is intended to replace thousands of existing qualifications, many of which are described as low quality, with just 15 core technical “routes”. The new routes will be designed specifically to respond to the needs of industry and will help equip learners with the skills in demand from local employers. New maths schools are also going to be set up to further embed this shift towards the knowledge economy.
All of this is good news for the data and analytics industry which is struggling from a lack of qualified candidates. TechUK’s just-published study, “the UK digital sectors after Brexit,” found that among three million employees, 18 per cent are foreign-born. More strikingly, these non-Brits made up 45% of employee growth between 2009 and 2015.
Just as data - central to the digital sector - is really getting into its stride, the shutters may be about to come down on the skilled workers it needs. Until the rights of existing EU workers are clarified and new rules for migrants agreed on, already difficult recruitment is about to hit a pinch point created by uncertainty.
It will be several years before the new STEM strategies go live and start to bear fruit. With luck, this will happen ahead of final post-Brexit arrangements for workers so that a rising supply of qualified domestic candidates coincides with the decline of foreign ones.
In the meantime, the data and analytics industry needs to work out how to align itself with the new industrial strategy and ensure it gets its share of support. This is especially important for SMEs which many of the most dynamic tech start-ups who rely deeply on STEM skills tend to be. Large organisations generally have a loud enough voice and a seat at the table already. Looking closely at how to sew together multi-location data apprenticeships to offer those new technical education students could be one solution.