How the digital industry is tackling its own skills crisis

Alarm bells about the widening digital skills gap in the UK have been ringing for some time. The clamour has stepped up since Brexit and the associated anxieties this is creating in sourcing non-British talent.

The demand for a digitally skilled workforce is rapidly increasing. No sector is untouched, as businesses of all stripes step up their efforts in digital transformation. Agencies play a pivotal role in futureproofing brands and their propositions, but the pressure to attract and retain quality digital talent is increasing for everyone.

The digital industry itself contributes £118.3bn to the UK’s Gross Value Added each year and employs 1.4m (source Technation 2016) - the country cannot afford for this momentum to stall if it is to stay competitive. BIMA’s Digital Day provides a good opportunity to reflect on these challenges, and tackle them at the root.

Thanks to our latest study in partnership with SapientNitro, we can see how hard-pressed digital agencies are to attract and retain skilled digital employees. The poll surveyed 272 digital agencies and findings show that each company has on average 3.5 unfilled vacancies, taking nearly eight weeks to find the right person to fill each vacancy.

Agencies’ fears about maintaining a diverse and skilled workforce in the face of Brexit are also revealed, with 90% of agencies saying they have at least one non-British European employee and nearly 50% saying leaving the EU will make it harder to attract non-British talent. Also worrying is the fact that nearly a fifth of respondents stated their companies are 100% white.

This presents a dual challenge: how to engage and excite young people about the opportunities they will enjoy if they enter a career in digital and; how to ensure there is a pool of talent from diverse backgrounds getting the opportunities that we know are there. We need to stress that our doors are open. Agencies are already crying out for diverse talent and they are clearly worried that Brexit will further narrow the available pool.

Nigel Vaz, chief executive EMEA and APAC for Publicics Sapient, nails it when he says: “The skills gap is one that is challenging the digital industry, with thousands of desirable positions going unfilled across the country.”

BIMA is playing its part on both fronts. We partner with diversity programmes such as The Great British Diversity Experiment and Creative Equals to get the message out that these jobs are available to anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. To help stimulate interest from the next generation of students and school leavers we mobilise the industry to take part in our annual BIMA Digital Day, the only initiative of its kind.

The event was held this week (15 November) when professionals from leading digital agencies including SapientNitro, Amaze, Facebook, Yard Digital and Redweb went into schools of all kinds, including underprivileged, behavioural and special needs schools, to stimulate and inspire thousands of pupils about digital careers.

The day kicked off nationwide with morning presentations from local digital experts to illustrate the wide range of roles available – digital skills most definitely don’t just mean coding – and this was followed by a competition where students competed in one of three sponsored challenges provided by TATA Communications, Cancer Research and Standard Life.

The feedback we receive from industry professionals and students blows us away every year. Students thoroughly enjoy working on briefs, while being supported and challenged by their partnered agency or brand side team. It’s a two-way street, with our digital advisors loving going back to school for the day, giving back and helping to tackle the talent shortage at the root.

With great timing, Google also made its announcement this week about increased investment in its London headquarters, recruiting more people and, most importantly, offering five hours of free digital skills training to all UK citizens.

This is a great step in the right direction and should prompt everyone to roll up their sleeves and get involved in future initiatives that encourage the next generation of digital talent to consider a rewarding, variable and viable career in the digital industries.

Bridget Beale is managing director at BIMA

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