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What must Sunak’s government do to make the UK the”next Silicon Valley”?

In this guest article, Hadi Moussa, managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa at Coursera, offers a perspective on what Sunak’s government must do to ensure the UK can become the “next Silicon Valley.”

As Rishi Sunak settles into Number 10, the UK waits to see which of his summer campaign pledges make it into policy. One key commitment is his promise to make the UK a ‘science and technology superpower’, reinforcing the goal of June’s new Digital Strategy, launched under Johnson’s government, to transform the country into a ‘global tech superpower’.

The UK has many of the elements needed to make this rhetoric a reality. The country boasts a world-class research infrastructure, including four of the world’s top 10 universities. And its tech ecosystem is rapidly expanding. In the first six months of 2022, UK start-ups and scale-ups secured more than £12bn in venture capital funding (more than the total amount won in 2020), putting the UK ahead of China and just behind the US in terms of funding for this period. The UK is also rapidly adding to its stable of unicorns: last year, a new tech unicorn was created every 11 days.

Yet the UK still lacks the central piece of the superpower puzzle: skills. The UK’s technology skills proficiency is dangerously underdeveloped, jeopardising its preparedness for the digital economy. Examining data from more than 100 million learners, Coursera’s 2022 Global Skills Report, which ranks the learner competency of 100 nations across Business, Technology and Data Science, found that tech skills in the UK lag behind most of Europe with the UK placing only 42nd globally for technology proficiency. In its strongest category, Data Science, the UK still placed outside the global top 20, at number 28.

There are key digital areas where the UK workforce is woefully lacking. As a nation’s tech infrastructure grows, so does the surface area available to cyber criminals, meaning that superpower status comes with new security challenges. Yet Coursera’s report found that UK learners only score 29% for proficiency in Security Engineering.

Closing the tech skills gap

As long as this skills gap persists, Sunak may find it a challenge to fulfil his promise. Encouragingly, this is something the Prime Minister and his government appear to have recognised. Sunak has made headlines this autumn with his plan to invest £3bn in skills and education to trigger a ‘skills revolution’, with money earmarked for T-levels, traineeships, apprenticeships and Level 3 courses, as well as skills boot camps in areas such as AI, nuclear and cybersecurity.

It’s the opportunities for upskilling and reskilling that will be critical in closing the UK’s proficiency gap. Although graduates need access to flexible, affordable and fast-tracked pathways to entry-level jobs in key tech areas, the government must persist in championing lifelong learning if it wants to turn the UK into a global tech force. It needs to support workers in transitioning away from industries where job demand is decreasing, such as food and customer service, agriculture and office support roles, towards sectors like AI and machine learning, data analysis, cybersecurity and process automation. With the global digital economy expected to grow from 66 million jobs in 2022 to 190 million jobs by 2025, such reskilling is economically crucial on both a personal and national level.

Closing the skills gap also involves opening the door to the talents and abilities of groups who have been historically excluded from tech. According to 2020 data from BCS, only 10% of IT specialists have a disability, only 19% are women and ethnic minority IT specialists are less likely to be in positions of responsibility than those of white ethnicity. If the UK wants its tech ecosystem to truly flourish, it needs to draw on – and support – the talent of its entire workforce.

These shifts won’t happen without intention and they won’t be successful without structure. The UK needs to create an evidence-based, strategically tailored skills framework that will allow it to triage the filling of skills gaps and support its superpower aspirations. This framework will need to incorporate non-traditional delivery modes that support reskilling at scale and open up access for non-traditional learners. And it must forge connections between government bodies, educational institutions, businesses and other educational providers: it’s only through collaboration that effective, long-lasting change will occur.

If the UK is serious about becoming a global tech leader, it desperately needs to close its skills gap. Sunak has begun his premiership by recognising this but his government needs to continue its pursuit of upskilling and reskilling if the country’s ambitions are to be achieved. Tech superpowers aren’t born, they’re made – through the efforts of a skilled, trained workforce.

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