Digital Skills Innovation Fund launched to improve diversity in tech sector

The government has launched a £1m fund aimed at boosting gender, ethnic and social diversity in digital and technology roles.

The Digital Skills Innovation Fund is intended to help equip women, disabled people, those from minority backgrounds or those from lower socioeconomic areas with the skills needed to take roles in programming, data analysis, cyber security and software development.

The fund, announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, will be open to local enterprise partnerships and combined authorities with initiatives that specifically help to encourage under-represented groups into digital roles.

According to IT sector representative body BCS, just 17% of the IT workforce is female, 17% is non-white, 21% is aged over 50 and only 8% is disabled.

Local Enterprise Partnership Network chair and Digital Skills Partnership board member Christine Gaskell said: “As the rate of technological change and innovation continues, ‘tech’ is becoming increasingly integrated within every sector and industry.

“We share the aspiration to ensure that more people have the skills and creativity that will enable them to contribute to, and benefit from, new economic opportunities and deliver more inclusive growth.

“Any initiative with the aim to make more people tech savvy and to bring more women and young people into the sector to create new start-ups and unearth the next digital superstars has to be welcomed.”

Organisations have until 28 October to bid for funding. Grants of between £200,000 and £500,000 will be available.

The government has already invested £170,000 into the Tech Talent Charter, which aims to help organisations improve the diversity of their workforce by supporting suitable attraction, recruitment and retention practices.

Sarah Kaiser, employee experience, diversity and inclusion Lead at Fujitsu, said the shortage of a diverse range of candidates exists partly because there is a lack of awareness about the opportunities that exist and inaccurate perceptions that some groups do not belong in the tech sector.

“We also need to recognise that old-fashioned biases are still built into too many organisations and jobs,” she said.

“It is only by engaging a diverse array of people in tech that we can hope to protect the future competitiveness of the UK economy. And from enhancing agility to innovation and customer relationships, diversity and inclusion programmes are crucial for improving business performance, continued growth and success.”

The Digital Skills Innovation Fund will be joined by a £400,000 Digital Inclusion Fund, which specifically targets older and disabled people who need help acquiring basic digital skills, such as using apps and making the most of search engines.

Minister for digital Margot James said: “It is crucial everyone is able to take advantage of digital technology, whether it is to learn how to use the internet or develop the skills to work in a tech role.

“If we want to maintain our position as a world-leading digital economy we need to work with industry, local authorities and the voluntary sector to develop solutions so no-one is left behind.”

With PricewaterhouseCoopers predicting that seven million jobs are set to be replaced by artificial intelligence or other emerging technologies by 2037, much of the workforce will need to adopt digital skills in order to boost their employment prospects.

Marks & Spencer last month announced that data skills training, covering programming languages and machine learning, will be offered to around 1,000 staff.

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