A Time of Change: Technology, Diversity and Skills
By Maggie Morrison, Vice President & Client Partner, Public Services Scotland, NTT DATA UK

Last week I spent two days attending the Scottish Council for the Development of Industry’s Annual Forum held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. The theme for this year’s event was: “A Time of Change – Starting the Clock on Scotland’s Next Economy”

I was privileged to represent NTT DATA UK by speaking at a workshop chaired by Lord Henley on the UK Industrial Strategy. The key focus of discussion was: how do we build on Scotland’s economic strengths, capitalise on future opportunities, and provide the greatest economic and social return for public investment?

Scotland’s productivity has effectively flatlined since 2010 and remains 20% below the top quartile of OECD countries. All of this at a time when we have record employment levels and when the number of enterprises in Scotland has increased in the same period by around 10%.

As I listened to the many excellent speeches and spoke with contributors and attendees in networking breaks there were some recurring themes, especially from those hailing from continental Europe.

I was glad to hear representatives from countries such as Germany, Austria and France all speak glowingly of the strong historic connections between Scotland and their respective countries. Many I spoke to also perceived there to be a great emphasis in Scotland on the importance of skills and social inclusion.

Economic factors

So how do we capitalise on this? In her speech, Dame Vivian Hunt, Managing Partner for McKinsey in the UK, identified the two biggest economic levers as 1) investment in technology and 2) gender participation in the workforce.

Skills are of critical importance to produce better quality jobs, and in order to achieve this it is crucial that schools, colleges and universities play a role working together with government and the private sector to equip people of all ages with the skills required for the modern workforce.

Earlier this month Scottish Government launched the framework for challenging inequality for older people. “The framework provides a platform from which we can reframe our thinking about older people,” said Dame Vivian, “to move from what can be a negative, problem-focused perspective to a positive and cohesive recognition of older people as a vital part of Scotland’s potential for success and improvement in the 21st century. This includes the integration of older people in the workforce and should address skills at every level.”

This is not just idealism, there is growing evidence to back it up. A study published last year in the US found the average founder of the fastest growing tech start-ups was about 45-years-old, and that 50 plus year-old entrepreneurs were about twice as likely to have a runaway business success than their 30-year-old counterparts.

Providing the right support

Scotland has a fantastic rate of tech start-ups, including university spin-outs, however we do poorly on scale ups. Part of the problem with early stage businesses is access to funding, so it was very welcome to hear Benny Higgins, former head of Tesco Bank and Strategic Advisor to the new Scottish National Investment Bank, address this during his speech. He explained that the Scottish Government is backing the bank with £2 billion over the next decade, equivalent to roughly 1.3% of GDP, to “help make spin-outs the big businesses of the future”.

Ensuring inclusivity

At the same time this is a huge opportunity as many new jobs will be created. Artificial Intelligence technologies are already having a disruptive effect on work, with some jobs being lost, others being created, and others changing. We can already see the effect of this in sectors such as retail and manufacturing. A Royal Society report published last year estimates the impact will affect 10 – 30% of jobs in the UK. The challenge therefore will be to ensure that it positively impacts Scotland’s productivity, and that it happens in a socially inclusive way.

We also need to think about people whose jobs will disappear as a result of the impact of technology. An older worker who has spent his or her career working in one sector such as retail may feel that is all he or she can do. However that is simply not the case – soft skills for instance will always remain critically important. A person who has had a career in retail will have built up a considerable set of soft skills, as well as experience in organisation and logistics. These skills are all transferrable, so we need to ensure that retraining, upskilling and opportunities are available to those at the upper end of the age scale.

My hope is that towards the end of the next decade Scotland will have embraced technology and diversity, and that by then we will be telling a different story about the nation’s productivity and our accession into the top quartile of the OECD’s performing countries.

Maggie Morrison is Vice President & Client Partner, Public Services Scotland at NTT DATA UK, and was part of a breakout session panel on ‘Driving Investment: UK Industrial Strategy’ at SCDI Forum 2019