THE Scottish economy will be held back unless solutions are found to narrow the country’s widening digital skills deficit.

Donald McLaughlin, the former Cisco executive who chairs the digital skills group at government agency Skills Development Scotland (SDS), said the country’s digital skills requirement is expanding faster than the ability of schools, universities and the current workforce to fill new openings.

Mr McLaughlin notes that there are currently between 90,000 and 100,000 employed in technology roles in Scotland, either directly in the tech sector or in tech roles in other industries. He said the digital sector is growing to the extent there is a need to fill about 13,000 jobs every year. However, he warned the pipeline of available talent is not strong enough.

Mr McLaughlin, who has his own IT consultancy and works as a sales director for software firm Synergy Sky, said: “The challenge comes from the fact we probably only have about 4,000 coming through university with computing science degrees, plus about 1,000 apprentices. Together, that’s about 5,000 coming through versus a need of about 13,000 and that 13,000 is increasing very year because of the nature of digital and the fact it is becoming pervasive in every sector.

“The raw numbers mean we have got a pretty challenging skills gap already, and unless we really accelerate the solution to that, it is only going to become more acute as time goes on.”

He added: “That’s really the reason the group is in place; to try and address that skills gap and make sure that, as things go on, we are not holding back that aspect of the Scottish economy, and we are able to support it much better.”

The digital skills group Mr McLaughlin chairs at SDS was set up to work with industryto support the delivery of the Scottish Government’s skills investment plan for the tech sector.

One of its major objectives is to increase the number of females entering the sector. Progress is being made in this regard, with the most recent ONS (Office for National Statistics) Annual Population Survey, published in October, revealing that the number of women in tech has risen from 18% to 23.4% in the last two years.

But Mr McLaughlin said much more has to be done. He noted: “The stats around gender are not as high as they need to be, although they have just got better in the latest measure. It still needs to improve a lot, but we are starting to see an improvement which is encouraging. Typically, less than 20% of the digital tech workforce have been female.”

Mr McLaughlin highlighted the work being done by industry partners in the group to boost the “future talent pipeline”.

As part of efforts to encourage more young people to consider careers in tech, SDS has established a Digital Extra Fund which pays for extra-curricular coding clubs for pupils, starting at primary school.

The organisation is also placing more emphasis on digital foundation apprenticeships in secondary schools, which provide a “workplace learning alternative to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) highers”. The qualification, recognised by industry, is equivalent to a higher and can be used to access a modern apprenticeship, or places on college or university courses.

Mr McLaughlin said part of the efforts to “inspire” young people involves industry figures going into schools to highlight the breadth of roles that technology can offer, which could include work with tech disruptors such as Uber, Airbnb and Spotify.

He said: “We need to working on inspiring [children] at a younger age.

“If you went into school and said: does anyone want to work on digital animation for the next Star Wars movie you would probably get a lot of hands going up. Whereas if you went in and said: does anyone want to be a hardware engineer [you would get less of a response]. We need to work on sector attractiveness and bring it to life in a way that appeals to young people.”