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How to retain specialist digital talent in the UK through Brexit uncertainty

From promoting diversity to developing internal talent, Campaign Jobs looks at how you can ride the Brexit storm and retain top specialists.

The ripple effect of Brexit uncertainty is witnessing the beginnings of tech talent leaving the UK, whilst at the same time fewer candidates being attracted to what Britain can offer. Yet with a focus on what employees want and giving purpose and value to the work they do, together with reframing perceptions of who to hire, businesses can ride the Brexit storm and hang onto their star performers.

The August 2018 edition of LinkedIn’s Workforce Report shows the UK continuing to experience a net loss of talent to other countries. According to the authors, it is a significant shift to a net outflow of workers to other countries, a change that became evident in the first quarter of 2018.

This does provide evidence that migration flow is changing due to the Brexit referendum, but does this mean that a tech talent drain with skilled coders and software engineers leaving the UK will also occur? Campaign Jobs spoke with Lexie Papaspyrou, head of academy and diversity and inclusion lead at Sparta Global, a digital and technical services provider, offering bootcamp training to individuals hoping to enter the tech market, and Fredrik Borestrom, president of the International Advertising Agency, UK Chapter.

Is a talent drain happening?

Borestrom says: "In the past quarter to two-quarters, we have witnessed the flow of talent decrease whilst the flow of talent leaving has increased. We are becoming a net exporter of talent."

Findings from LinkedIn support this. Over the last year, professional migration from the rest of the world to the UK has gone down by 20%, according to the professional networking site. Worryingly, whilst nearly a third (28%) of recruiters think the UK has become less attractive to candidates from the rest of the world, it appears that the perception that Britain is a place to advance your career has faltered, according to the report.

This is worrying news for those striving to keep a competitive edge, yet with some strategies in place and a focus on home-grown approaches and developing talent, the UK can cling onto its rising stars.

Challenge the traditional talent narrative

Papaspyrou says the first thing employers can do is to become more open and accepting of who they will hire: "Employers need to question if they really need someone with a STEM degree. Now is the time to look at a more diverse narrative."

This model requires some more lateral thinking with employers being prepared to train in-house or take candidates from backgrounds outside of tech. Last year, Sparta Global took 130 candidates from a variety of backgrounds through its tech training course. Papaspyrou says the trainees at Sparta come with a rich diversity of credentials and backgrounds and pleasingly it doesn’t have any bearing on their output or success.

Commenting, Papaspyrou says: "As a business that trains people to go into tech roles, Sparta Global is in a unique position to alter the talent funnel at a later stage by enabling individuals to get into tech without needing to have followed a traditional career path. Being part of the supply chain for other businesses means Sparta has the ability to shape the future tech workforce."

Promote diversity

With insufficient talent to fill the available tech roles in the UK, Papspyrou suggests that the ‘pipeline’ needs attention. By this she refers to focusing on the grass roots up and looking at what we are teaching children in school. She refers to the uptake of computer science in the UK as ‘worrying’ and added to this is that it is a discipline that boys lean towards over girls.

Last year, the Tech Talent Charter was launched to address this. CEO, Debbie Forster MBE, talking at the time, referred to it as: "A starting gun moment" in the race towards a gender-diverse and high performing tech sector. Supporting the importance of this, big brand names including Monster, HP, Fujitsu and Reed, all voiced the critical importance of curing diversity inertia.

Research from Harvard Business Review also reveals that employees at companies with diverse leadership are 45% more likely to grow their market share and 70% more likely to capture a new market. It makes for a compelling case for a richer diversity of employees in tech.

At the grass roots, Borestrom is seeing the impact of the talent drain and the reasons businesses are losing out: "I am hearing from agency executives and big publishers that they are losing clients because of Brexit. The risk is that the deals are going elsewhere." Building more diverse teams may help to hold onto business, particularly when clients are looking to invest in teams that are broader in nature and representative of an international pool.

Develop talent from within

It’s no secret that millennials are demanding of employers and with the power being in their hands, a key way of retaining them is to nurture and upskill existing employees, giving them the digital repertoire they need to drive the business from within. To avoid the skills disparities brought on by Brexit, companies must foster a working environment that looks both at attracting a diverse workforce whilst at the same time focusing inwards to develop existing talent.

Papaspyrou says one-way businesses can do this is to look towards adjusting skillsets later on in people’s careers or education: "There are some fantastic organisations out there that help people gain tech skills and many are targeted at university students or career changers.

"Some companies are also offering great training sponsorship opportunities to their staff to help them move sideways into more technical roles. What we need to see though is more investment coming from industry rather than relying on third sector organisations to create these opportunities."

Rebrand mission and values

Borestrom says today’s workers want to work for something rather than for a company. This in turn means that employers that want to hang onto their key talent need to focus on their mission, purpose and values.

"Employers are and should now be looking at developing or nurturing their employer brand for their employees as well as their customers. If a candidate is looking at whether to work for company A over company B, a differentiator may be what the business stands for and this is about how well the story has been told," says Borestrom.

It’s a sentiment that Papaspyrou agrees with. She says that gone are the days when young talent is naïve: "Today they are more astute and challenging than ever before. They know what they want – they go onto Glassdoor and see what salary they should be earning, and they want to know what they will be offered over and above this too in terms of opportunities to learn."

She adds this is also where leadership can play its part in winning and earning the loyalty of staff: "Degrees cost money and graduates want to be given challenging and stretching work, not just the grunt work."

As Brexit rumbles on and the digital climate continues to evolve, businesses that are quick to adapt to the new external environment will succeed at a time when key talent is shaken by concerns over security and longevity.

Companies that reframe their branding to focus on employee desires and develop and stretch their employees, putting values at the front of their retention strategy, will outpace their competitors.

This, together with an approach from the grass roots up, focusing on what students are learning at school and taking a diverse talent pool who don’t necessarily come to the party armed with an IT degree, will ensure the digital workforce of the future is robust to face the challenges ahead.

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