How to build a digital Scotland

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

How to build a digital Scotland

As Scotland embraces the Internet of Things, a new survey of the region’s tech sector says there is still a yawning skills gap to be bridged.

Like so many regions up and down the country, perceptions can be a dangerous enemy.

Scotland’s digital scene is buzzing, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledging 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage by 2021, but we will have to fight hard to move away from the juxtaposition argument – that the reason Scottish digital is attractive is that it is a contrast to the stunning landscape and tourism side of the country – and stake a bold claim for digital as a standalone success worthy of international investment.

A new survey from Technology Scotland shows great optimism in the sector, but it is easy enough to find the boos among the applause. It says 70% of participants believe there is a disconnect between current university focus and industry requirements, 64% of participants believe there is a current skills gap within their business and 61% have experienced at least one skills shortage vacancy in the last 12 months which has remained open for more than three months.

The applause - and it is loud – comes from 89% of participants having no problems retaining staff and 87% believing the Scottish technology sector remains an attractive place to do business.

The growth of the Emerging & Enabling (E&E) Technologies Sector is crucial to Scotland, currently supplying 10% of Scottish exports and with some 15,000 employees in high skill R&D roles at over 400 enterprises, with an average salary of £36,000, 67% above the national average.

Technology Scotland CEO Stephen Taylor says that the results show the sector remains “vibrant, active and resilient” despite the skills challenges.

“Our survey shows that companies are retaining staff well despite current political uncertainties, however when it comes to filling current vacancies and sourcing graduates from Scottish universities, more work is needed to address challenges and avoid further disconnect,” he said.

Stephen Taylor

“We therefore call on industry and academia to work with us to meet the increasing demand for home-grown talent and help secure this high-growth sector as one of Scotland’s leading capabilities.”

Although skills shortages remain an issue, the research suggests that businesses are prepared to embrace a variety of routes to retaining, training and employing staff. 77% of businesses stated that they have funded or facilitated training on-the-job for staff, with 34% reporting that they have taken on a modern apprentice.

The need for university graduates proved the priority though, with 80% of businesses having a high requirement, but 70% reporting that disconnect between what universities provide and what industry needs.

With the IoT at the centre of current innovation, and likely to pay a huge part in its future, a new accelerator initiative has just been launched by  Censis, the Scottish Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems.

The centre aims to bring together commercial innovation and academic research, and will deliver collaborative R&D projects and assist Scotland’s 170 companies in the industry which, between them, contribute £3.6 billion to the economy.

In its IoT Explorer programme Censis will provide up to 20 days’ support, over several months, for product and service ideas including smart cities, precision agriculture, energy efficiency and smart transport.

 Business Development Director Dr Mark Begbie said: “While a lot of businesses have heard of the IoT, there are still many that don’t understand the huge impact it is likely to have on, not only industries, but society as a whole. Scotland is at the vanguard of that change and our aim is to help as many companies as possible develop products and services to ensure that remains the case.

 “This is an exciting opportunity for a small business with innovative IoT concepts, larger companies that are changing their approach to technology, or even individuals with strong ideas to take things to the next stage and get the support they need. We’re looking forward to seeing some new and thought-provoking applications from across Scotland.”

 The Scottish government is certainly making impressive strides to underpin all this work, and says its Digital Scotland strategy is a priority. It is looking at four main areas to establish the long-term stability of the sector:

Digital Connectivity to  ensure that everyone in Scotland can access high quality digital connectivity is a priority for the Scottish Government; Growing the Digital Economy by raising the awareness and use of digital technologies and platforms; Increasing Digital Participation to make sure all of Scotland benefits from the social, cultural and economic benefits of the internet, and crucially, a focus on Digital Public Services to deliver improved, user-focused digital public services and to drive innovation and efficiency in the public sector.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP manifesto seemed to have grasped the importance, saying at her manifesto launch: “We live in a world where technological and economic transformation is happening at a pace we haven’t seen before.

“We have the potential in Scotland, more than most countries on earth, to take advantage of the opportunity this change presents. That means a huge, potential economic prize for Scotland.   It means a world of opportunity for our young people.”

Her election manifesto said: “We are investing in digital connectivity, with £400 million to deliver superfast broadband to 95 per cent of properties across Scotland by the end of 2017 and we will reach 100 per cent by 2021.”

A small sentence in a digital avalanche of information, but one many businesses here will be watching closely.