UK employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find the technical graduates needed to meet growing demands in areas such as cyber security, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, says Professor Kamal Bechkoum, Head of the School of Computing and Engineering at University of Gloucestershire.

From January to May 2022, there were approximately 870,000 technology and digital job vacancies open across the UK as demand for tech products and services hiring in the sector rises to heights not seen in the past decade. This figure doesn’t take into account that the majority of the rest of the workforce needs to be upskilled to meet the needs of the digitised workplace.

Professor Bechkoum said: ‘Over the past year, the demand for cyber security professionals has increased by 60% and, as a result of the pandemic in 2020, many industries have seen an acceleration in digital transformation and remote working, resulting in an increased risk of cyber-attacks.

‘Further to this, the World Economic Forum is currently predicting that 42% of jobs will need upskilling or reskilling to meet future technological demands. The potential obstacles for organisations are huge – particularly in the important areas of cyber, AI, robotics and automation.

‘Demand for talented people who can think outside of the box is paramount, and at the same time, finding and developing the right graduates is increasingly important.’

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), a part of GCHQ, runs a certified degree programme to help set a high standard of cyber security teaching across higher education to enable students to make informed decisions about the range of courses on offer at UK universities.

Last month, it was announced that the NCSC had provisionally certified the master’s degree in Cyber Security delivered by the School of Computing and Engineering at University of Gloucestershire.That announcement came hard on the heels of news that Gloucestershire had been chosen by the Department of Trade and Industry to be showcased as a world-leading cyber cluster through the High Potential Opportunities (HPO) programme.

An analysis of the current employment market shows that average entry-level positions in cyber security start at up to £35,000 per year, rising to £70,000; Robotics graduates can start at £31,000, rising to £58,500, and AI graduates may start on £45,000 per year, while many experienced workers can go on to make upwards of £70,000.

Professor Bechkoum added: ‘Naturally, higher education institutions including University of Gloucestershire train new and experienced workers in the specific skills they need, but the widespread lack of homegrown graduates considering technical pathways often results in industry having to search for and recruit candidates from overseas.

‘It is important that universities and industry make young people aware that they have the opportunity to develop long, rewarding and secure futures in this industry.’

Changing perceptions and working with educators

So what needs to change to encourage more technical applicants to help meet the growing opportunities in this sector?

Professor Bechkoum said: ‘One route could be the direction laid out by the Government’s recent National AI Strategy, which suggests the UK will become a global leader in AI by 2030, transitioning the country into an AI-enabled economy, which will in turn supercharge innovation.

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‘Further to this, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced another £34 million package to fund 2,000 scholarships for AI and data science masters’ conversion courses for disadvantaged students.

‘In Gloucestershire, initiatives such as GFirst LEP and the Department for International Trade’s launch of the new Gloucestershire Cyber High Potential Opportunity are a prime example of how a county can be championed as a centre for technical jobs and opportunities.

‘However, despite these positive moves, more needs to be done. The burning issues facing industry and recruiters remain – coping with increasing demand versus a widespread lack of practical cyber, AI and hands-on technical skills in job candidates.

‘This limited understanding of emerging technologies and a need to address diversity and inclusion ties into the technical skillset barrier facing employers. The entire system of how new employees in this vital area are educated, trained and welcomed into industry as part of a joined-up approach is in need of urgent review.

‘As the application of cyber, AI and robotics associated job roles expands, a wide range of stakeholders and professions could be brought together to develop more practical ways of working alongside each other.

‘One option could be for industry to encourage graduates and academics to work part-time within companies and gain a better understanding of how they operate, allowing businesses to also benefit from the latest academic research.

‘There may also be a need for more universities to reinforce commitments to a genuine co-design of the curriculum and learning experience, so that courses better map to job roles, as well as prepare learners for a dynamically changing business environment. For this to succeed, collaboration between industry, academia and government agencies is key.

‘Ideas to plug the UK’s skills gap in tech areas including digital apprenticeships are all positive initiatives, but cyber and AI in particular are specialised roles, so greater investment and targeted training is needed to enable industry to make the most of the AI boom.’

About the author

Opinion article kindly submitted by Professor Kamal Bechkoum, Head of the School of Computing and Engineering at University of Gloucestershire.