The Leap 100 June Poll – Climate: Skills

The great skills race: How the UK measures up

IMMIGRATION provides a lifeline for Britain’s fast-growth firms. Over 60 per cent of The Leap 100 rely on non-UK nationals to fill vacancies in their companies. “By making it harder to employ skilled non-EU nationals, the government is putting a brake on the growth of the economy”, says Danvers Baillieu of Privax. This view was echoed by numerous others, with one in 10 stressing the need for far more relaxed visa rules, particularly for tech and IT specialists from non-EU countries.

Turning closer to home, this month’s Leap 100 survey asked about the quality of education in the UK, and whether more needs to be done to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) take-up. Nearly 70 per cent struggle to find enough skilled workers to fill vacancies, and four out of five believe that the government needs to prioritise students taking up STEM subjects. Fraser Smeaton, founder of MorphCostumes, stressed that, while it isn’t impossible to find skilled software engineers, it is expensive: “training more people in STEM subjects would help address this over the long term, making Britain more competitive and innovative”.

But The Leap 100 are also concerned about how business-relevant the curriculum is. One founder did stress that a greater focus on leadership and self-management in new academies is “increasingly producing good candidates”, but Paul Moravek of VentureFounders highlighted general sentiment: “at a school level, aside from just teaching STEM subjects, teaching students how and why these are applicable in the business environment would create more interest and drive”. At university level in particular, many of The Leap 100 think that learning should be orientated more towards relevant, vocational training. One individual recalled a marketing graduate interviewee who had only had one lecture in online marketing, the UK’s largest industry medium. Good written English and communication skills are also seen as lacking.

Similarly, universities are not aware enough, and are therefore not informing students of opportunities in startups. Nish Kukadia, chief executive of Secret Sales, said: “more should improve awareness of opportunities in entrepreneurial businesses, rather than the regular corporate mill presented to grads. The UK is already behind the curve, compared with the US and other countries.”

But many businesses don’t just struggle with finding skilled workers; a further hurdle is the price of housing: “salaries struggle to keep pace with the cost of living. Better low-cost housing options in prosperous areas would make it easier to recruit blue collar workers,” says Kate Lester of Diamond Logistics. And living costs feed back into the need for companies to cast their nets further afield, too.

Ruzbeh Bacha of City Falcon sums up the feelings of many in The Leap 100 in saying that “lack of quality skilled labour at affordable prices in the UK has led us to look for talent outside of the UK. We need to open our borders to smart people from outside the EU, or be ready for businesses, especially startups, to leave the country”.

This article first appeared in City A.M. on Thursday 25 June 2015. You can view the full City AM article here.