The Belfast lesson: how Northern Ireland is meeting growing tech demand
Northern Ireland is a hive of tech activity. Home to a vibrant cluster of over 1,500 digital tech companies – including 100 global technology leaders, as well as countless SMEs – it is one of the UK’s most fertile tech regions, with a reported £1.27 billion digital tech turnover. An appetite for the tech sector has turned the country into a hotspot for high-growth tech industries including cybersecurity, telecommunications, healthcare tech, financial services, and information technology services; with businesses including Fujitsu, RBS, KPMG, Deloitte, and PwC basing operations there.
Nowhere is this energy of tech growth felt more strongly than in the capital. In Belfast, more than one fifth of workers are employed in the digital tech sector, making it one of only five UK cities where the workforce is comprised of 10% or more digital workers. Belfast has a rich tech ecosystem, with tech giants including Microsoft, Google, and Amazon moving in alongside start-ups and scaling SMEs. Between 2011 and 2016, there was a 143% rise in the number of new digital businesses in the city, and Belfast boasts 17% of the UK’s high-growth tech businesses. So, demand for tech talent is significant – and growing. According to Tech Nation, one of the biggest challenges facing Belfast start-ups is access to talent.
Naturally, this is pushing up the price for talent, with salaries in digital and tech 17% higher than the national average, having grown by 120% over the last four years. But where many cities across the UK are struggling under the weight of a growing tech demand, Belfast is thriving, and warming to the challenge. Why?
Firstly, Belfast is home to an ever-replenishing pool of tech talent. Its two universities – Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University – work closely with businesses to ensure students leave with industry-related degrees. Meanwhile, skills programmes with government, industry, and academic collaboration, like ‘Bring IT On NI’, continue to promote and encourage IT careers in the next generation.
This is being supplemented by business input in the next generation, with US giant Microsoft investing £1m in a new digital learning centre to engage more than 15,000 primary and secondary students in NI in the space every year. This means that even though demand is increasing steeply and often outpacing skill availability, supply is still trying to pull its weight.
Secondly, Belfast has a robust and modern infrastructure that supports connectivity and removes barriers for businesses. Effective transport links – with two airports and vital rail links connecting the country to leading business destinations like London and Paris – make local and international business simple. And Belfast has also been chosen as one of six UK cities where 5G will be rolled out first, meaning that superspeed connections both digitally and logistically will soon be part of the city’s offering. Although there are still calls to transform outdated infrastructure connecting Northern Ireland, this will no doubt draw in more talent, boosting Belfast’s existing talent pool.
And thirdly, tech innovation and development in Belfast, and Northern Ireland as a whole, is supported by a range of government-sponsored and business-backed programmes, including the Immersive Technology Catapult, the regional economic development agency Invest NI and the not-for-profit Catalyst Springboard programme. Meanwhile, Barclays has set up its Eagle Lab innovation centre, Ulster Bank runs an accelerator for entrepreneurs, and Ignite 100 runs Propel, a pre-accelerator.
There are also innovation labs, R&D support, co-working spaces, and meetups throughout the city – resulting in a network of talent and innovation. A helpful tech community and access to larger organisations are both ranked in the top three of benefits to start-ups in Belfast. Becoming a centre for innovation may drive up demand. But in the long-run it will also likely attract supply – as tech workers migrate to Northern Ireland in order to work at the cutting-edge.
These three points evidence a positive, collaborative, and proactive approach to overcoming skill shortages. In Belfast, becoming a technology leader is a shared vision and goal, between government, businesses, and academia. While skill shortages may still be a pain point for companies, a collective effort to build the next generation of technologists, invest in connectivity, and innovate together will build a stronger, healthier tech community. And that will attract talent.
Take cybersecurity for instance. Just last week, Microsoft announced its plans to open a cybersecurity centre in Belfast, joining companies like WhiteHat Security, Deloitte, IBM, and PA Consulting, as well as PwC, which chose Belfast as the centre for its blockchain department. Meanwhile, Queen’s University Belfast and its Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) is one only seven UK Innovation and Knowledge Centres, focused on emergent technologies through world-class research and venture creation. CSIT produced 1,200 jobs in cybersecurity in Belfast between 2009 and 2017.
While cybersecurity is a notoriously tough market to hire for, building such a strong and diverse network of employers in the sector could well attract more talent in the long run – especially as CSIT generates industry innovation. Belfast could become for cybersecurity what Canary Wharf in London is for financial services. And while companies in Canary Wharf compete for talent, talent also floods to the business district from all over the world.
In Belfast, and all-over Northern Ireland, tech business is booming. The challenge will be sustaining that growth, especially as lucrative sectors like cybersecurity, financial services, and information technology services take off. But for a city that is all pulling in the same direction, and working collaboratively to do so, the strain of meeting demand with supply should be more straightforward. Because today, technology in Belfast is more than simply another sector, it’s the lifeblood of its economy.
Are you one of Northern Ireland’s high-growth businesses? Maybe you’re thinking of setting up in one of the fastest-growing digital economies in the UK? Well, while NI is responding strongly to supply in the long-term, competition for the best talent remains fierce. Contact me via Ryan.Hutton@Lorien.co.uk to get started on finding top tech talent for your business. We’re based in the heart of the capital, serving the whole of Northern Ireland.
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