Olu Orugboh, CEO and Founder, Synergy Solutions and Cambridge Wireless (CW) Vice Chair and  Board member asks: is it time for the tech sector to do more to increase the level of black talent representation in STEM?

In this article, she discusses the growing crisis in recruiting and retaining tech talent and highlights the CTW fringe roundtable event: “Driving Black Talent access to roles and creating value for the tech sector” on the 11th May 2023 – more info here.

Olu Orugboh

The Demand for Digital Skills

The tech sector is experiencing phenomenal growth, fuelled by changes in consumer demand, innovation and the migration of more services into the digital world.  So it’s inevitable that demand for skills to support this growth remains high.

With the accelerated adoption of digital technology, new technologies are constantly emerging and making a bigger impact across all spheres of society, including education, to finance, through to healthcare. As such, the tech industry is one of the most exciting places to be in right now, but it also presents some serious challenges.

The industry accounts for 5.5% of the UK economy, or an estimated £82.7bn, with government estimates predicting that it could bring an additional £41.5bn to the economy by 2025, generating thousands of jobs and technologies designed to improve lives (techUK Digital Economy Monitor, 2022).

It is estimated that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines, and algorithms (World Economic Forum, the future of jobs report, 2020).

This growth can only be sustained when underpinned by vital digital skills, fuelling demand for roles such as data scientists, cyber security specialists, software engineers and application developers, amongst others.  But to get there, the tech sector is facing one of its biggest challenges: the digital skills gap.

Can Tech Talent Keep Up With the Pace of Innovation?

Technology innovation is currently developing at a faster pace than the skills needed to apply such technology.  According to techUK’s Digital Economy Monitor, 57% of UK IT firms find the present talent shortage and access to skills among the biggest barrier for their companies (techUK Digital Economy Monitor,  2022).

This is creating a vicious circle, whereby there are fewer people to do the jobs needed to keep innovating. In time, this will slow down the pace of innovation, constricting the growth of the economy, which is even more pressing given the current cost-of-living crisis.

Beyond the digital skills gap, there are systemic barriers that discourage minority groups from considering the sector. Over a quarter of female students say that they have been put off a career in technology as it is too male dominated. The BCS Diversity Report found that age and gender (22%) are known as the top two diversity barriers to getting a first job in IT. When it comes to progressing a career in IT, gender is perceived as the biggest diversity barrier (29%) followed by age (19%) and ethnicity (11%) (BCS Diversity Report, 2020).

How Can We Address the Skills Gap & Inequality in Minority Groups?

Urgently addressing the skills gap, barriers to entry and progression, are vital to deliver continued innovation, growth and enable the realisation of potential economic benefit.

There are a host of solutions focussed on closing this digital skills gap, from growing the skills of young people in schools, executing programs that dismantle institutional barriers such as racial and gender inequality, creating non-traditional pathways into the tech industry and resetting recruitment to focus less on traditional education and more on skills. Thereby opening up digital roles to a wider, more diverse talent pool and delivering a more positive socio-economic impact.

If we place the spotlight on racial inequality within the sector, studies have shown that the UK’s technology sector is still suffering from a diversity issue.  When grouped as one category, the STEM workforce has a comparable share of Black, Asian, and racially minoritised workers to the rest of the UK workforce (12%).  When the data is looked at in more granularity, STEM has a lower share of Black workers (2% in engineering, technology, science, and maths compared to 3% in the rest of the workforce) (APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, 2021).

The Economic Benefits of a Diverse Talent Pool

Research has shown that creating an inclusive culture where Black talent can thrive makes economic sense. This is reaffirmed in the McKinsey report, which states that “the greater the representation in an organisation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance, as multiple perspectives are more likely to emerge, and creativity is ensured” (McKinsey 2020).

Additionally, research has shown that there is an economic benefit linked to understanding the needs of consumers.  British businesses are losing out on billions of pounds by “overlooking” black, Asian and multi-ethnic consumers. The Black Pound Report found that disposable income worth up to £4.5bn is being “ignored”. The research also found that multi-ethnic consumers have distinct motivators, and businesses must understand and reflect these to sell their products and services and be truly inclusive. The exclusion of minority groups, either consciously or unconsciously, creates a lack of awareness of needs and missed opportunities to better serve these communities (The Black Pound report, 2022).

The reality is that when you recruit people who are the same as you, you will only ever get your own perspective coming back to you.

Let’s Take Action

To fully capitalise on the opportunities presented through technology innovation and better represent the communities served, it is key for the tech sector to address the most deep-rooted inequalities, and in doing so, take focussed and committed action to become truly diverse and inclusive. This not only makes economic sense, but it is the right thing to do.

As one of the CONVERSATIONS, (fringe events), that are taking place during CTW, CW (Cambridge Wireless), in partnership with Homerton Changemakers and 10,000 Interns Foundation are pleased to present an exclusive event, with leading speakers from the technology community and institutions, on “Driving Black talent access to roles in STEM and creating value for the technology sector”.

This exclusive roundtable event is hosted by Lord Simon Woolley, Principal of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.

See more here.