Northern Ireland's technology sector in great shape right now


THE positive impact of the tech sector on the local economy has been highlighted a number of times in recent months.

Tech Nation highlighted that tech companies in Northern Ireland raised £45.6 million in investment in 2020, a record figure for the sector despite the pandemic. That beats the previous record of £30.4 million set in 2018.

Tech Nation also pointed out that the tech sector of course offers significant employment opportunities locally, with a wide range of available roles (more than any other sector), and workers commanding up to £10,000 more in wages.

It found 806 open tech roles in Northern Ireland and 516 in Belfast alone, representing 64 per cent of tech vacancies.

The report also says Northern Ireland has 2,195 digital tech firms, employing 21,140 people and with a combined £3bn turnover. That's a significant contribution to the local economy.

In addition, Digital DNA recently published its listing of the Top 100 tech companies here, showcasing leading firms across software development, fintech, IT managed services, health tech and other areas.

The list helps illustrate the depth and breadth of the sector, including numerous foreign direct investors, established indigenous companies, and many start-ups and fast growth businesses.

Of the 100 companies listed, 56 are classed as home-grown, and the combined number of people employed across the 100 companies totals something like 18,500. Two-thirds of the companies on the list were created or set up in Northern Ireland in the last 10 years.

One figure that is highlighted though is that just one in five companies on the list has a woman leading its operations here. There is clearly much more to do on this front. And great initiatives like AwakenHub are doing good work in seeking to address the gender gap.

From reading the Digital DNA Top 100 and Tech Nation's reports, it is clear the tech sector in Northern Ireland is overall in good shape. The sector has been resilient in the face of the pandemic and in some respects has been centrally involved in providing solutions to challenges brought about by Covid-19. Indeed, IT has played a critical role across most firms' responses to the pandemic.

When we look at the global landscape, there is confidence around the prospects for IT this year. Garter, the respected research and advisory company, surveyed chief information officers (CIOs) at leading businesses and found that 55 per cent plan to increase their total number of full-time employees in IT across the course of 2021. Growth in security personnel for instance is necessary to reduce the risks from significant investments in remote work, analytics and cloud platforms.

But whilst the demand for talent is clear, the big challenge comes on the skills supply side. With the tech sector growing and CIOs planning to recruit this year, there will no doubt be more pressure on the available talent. As we know, this is a challenge Northern Ireland faces and is working to address.

But it seems that there is not just a challenge around available skills in the workplace now. There might also be challenge earlier in the pipeline.

At a UK level, the Learning & Work Institute says the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40 per cent since 2015. And this is while demand for AI, cloud and robotics skills is soaring in a range of industries.

What is clear is that investment in the skills of our young people continues to be critical to ensure the talent that will enable our tech sector to continue to grow into the future.

:: Patrick McAliskey is strategic adviser to Cancom, a multi-national IT company headquartered in Munich, with 4,000 employees worldwide and 350 based in Belfast.

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