How UK academics can bridge the digital skills gap

UK's academic community is tight-knit and highly skilled. It's also an untapped source of tech talent, says Pivigo's Kim Nilsson.

Last year, the digital skills gap costs the UK £2 billion, with employers struggling to fill key tech roles while growing their businesses. The biggest gap in skills over the next five years will be big data and analytics. Two in three UK businesses will have a marked demand for these skills but can the talent pipeline meet this need?

Kim Nilsson believes it’s a matter of looking at the current state of the talent pipeline and finding ways to bridge gaps. As a former academic, Nilsson realised that the closely knit, highly skilled academic community may be the answer.

Building opportunities for PhDs in data science

“In my experience, PhDs really struggle to find jobs outside academia,” she says. We started Pivigo about four years ago now, and we thought a lot about the recruitment angle, how to get the PhDs into business. The main thing stopping these highly skilled people from getting jobs in the ‘real world’ was that they lacked commercial experience. That’s when we had the idea for a data science bootcamp – A five-week ‘internship’-style bootcamp – three years ago.”

If you look at really hardcore academics, they’re not really on social media, says Nilsson. “It’s really hard to reach them. It’s almost a very tight-knit bubble, and everyone knows everyone. But once you get through to one person, they’ll start sharing it for you with their friends, so word of mouth becomes very important,” she adds.

The seeds for Nilsson’s business were sown much earlier on, from personal experience of transitioning into the business world.

“I always wanted to be an astronomer. Since I was 13, it was a pretty straight career path for me. But I slowly started to realise I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had expected. I decided to leave academia and to find a job that would interest me. But that’s when I really struggled to figure out my place in business,” she tells GrowthBusiness.

“We see this as a global opportunity and this platform will allow us to take advantage of this.”

Meanwhile, Jason Muller, Nilsson’s future business partner, had a background in recruitment, and had just exited a business. He was at a crossroads, too, trying to figure what to do with his life after his exit, says Nilsson. “We also launched our own marketplace to connect freelance PhDs and data scientists. It’s been received really well, but there’s still a long way to go to see real change in bridging the skills gap.”

When Nilsson and Muller first created the concept of the Science to Data Science (S2DS) programme, they had to invent how it’d work from scratch since there was nothing like this in Europe. “We didn’t have funding. We wanted to give people the best programme, provide them accommodation and so on, and we needed to do that through corporate sponsorship. But companies in London were understandably sceptical at first because they hadn’t seen this model before,” Nilsson says.

In late Autumn of 2013, Nilsson and Muller reached got in touch with KPMG, which was a huge turning point for the business. “They really believed in our ideas and they believed in us. They came on board and helped us start out our first programme, build the brand, and give us the credibility we needed,” adds Nilsson. From then, the duo launched its marketplace connecting data scientists to project-based work. “We see this as a global opportunity and this platform will allow us to take advantage of this,” she adds.

Portfolio jobs: the gig economy and the future of the job market

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and unrest around the world, but I’m confident there’s a way around it. We believe very strongly in the gig economy. We’re not going to have the same job for five years, or even two years. We’re going to be building portfolios rather than careers, and these online marketplaces are key to make that happen. Workers can work from India for a company in Brazil, for example, and that’s what the future looks like to us,” Nilsson adds.

“When there’s something new in society, it’ll always take time for people to understand it and figure out rules for it.”

Unlike gig economy giants like Uber, Pivigo works with a highly skilled talent pool. While acknowledging the issues around regulation and changes in the gig economy, Nilsson believes the uniqueness of the platform places it in a league of its own. “It’s important for us as a business, and it’s important for us in terms of the reputation the industry. We’re working with really highly skilled people, so if they didn’t want to work with us, they can easily find a full-time job. For us, it’s about being attractive to these data scientists and academics, to emphasise flexible working, and that freelancing will free them up to work on different projects at different times, to keep them challenged. We’re not talking about low paid individuals who depend on us for their income. It’s more like us trying to sell to them on why it’s good for them,” she explains.

When there’s something new in society, it’ll always take time for people to understand it and figure out rules for it, she adds. “About a year ago, there was a MeetUp group set up in London was created just for marketplaces. I went for one of their events and I was really surprised to see about 50 people in the room all starting their own niche marketplace businesses. We’re seeing a lot of examples, some very niche ones like The Dots, Urban Massage and so on. And I think we’ll see more of them, both in consumer and business applications for suppliers to sell their services.”

Brexit: bane or boon for business?

Nilsson foresees a lot of changes in the gig economy and for start-ups in London.

“What’s being mumbled about in the community is that we don’t know if there will be less funding in the future because of Brexit. But right now, it’s a very strong market,” says Nilsson. She believes that there’s a lot of investment available for London start-ups, having received a lot of interest from venture capitalists in the UK and Europe. “If you look at machine learning and AI, it’s a very hot sector. There’s a lot of money floating about. Interestingly, one our angel investors is from India, so we have managed to attract capital from outside the UK already. I don’t think Brexit is something we should worry about right now.”

Opportunities for female founders in tech

Nilsson believes there’s a lot more work to be done in encourage female founders, let alone female employees in the technology sector.

“In the academic community, it has gotten much better, especially in astronomy, biology, and life sciences. It’s almost 50:50 and sometimes skewed higher for women. But computer science and maths still needs more work,” she explains, touching in the barriers for women in pursuing a career in STEM subjects.

In the S2DS programme, Nilsson noticed that while a good fraction of participants in the bootcamp were women, many dropped off after the programme, and didn’t go on to work in the industry. “We don’t see a great number working in the industry now. It’s positive to see them taking the first step to data science careers, but we’re still baffled by why they drop off following through by working in data science,” she says.

“We do need to have more campaigns for women in technology, like Ada Lovelace day. These diversity initiatives are important and we need to keep doing them.”

Nilsson agrees it’s still a very masculine industry, and thinks this could be a deterrent for some women. “For example, when I go to some data science events, people assume I’m there as support staff. I’m more or less ignored at some of these events, because others assume I’m not a scientist, or a CEO. If you feel like you’re the only one there, and you’re being ignored, that won’t make you feel excited to work in the industry.”

If not having enough women in the sector is a deterrent for other women from entering the field, it becomes a vicious, exclusionary cycle. How can it be broken?

“The industry needs to be more aware of the lack of women in tech roles, and that the few that are in the industry need to feel included and welcome. We do need to have more campaigns for women in technology, like Ada Lovelace day. These diversity initiatives are important and we need to keep doing them,” says Nilsson. “We also need to educate individuals to overcome biases. I’m actually quite positive it’ll change in the next five years.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.