Survey reveals a skills shortage is hindering growth in Cardiff’s IT, Software and Computer Services sector.

To coincide with Digital this month, we conducted a survey of Cardiff’s IT, Software and Computer Services sector to get an understanding of what makes the industry tick and how comfortably it fits within the creative industries.

As identified by Creative Cardiff’s mapping of the IT, Software and Computer Services sector, Cardiff represents a regional hub of activity with software development representing a key business area. In comparison with other UK cities, however, it does not perform as strongly. Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University said: "Cardiff figures for both freelancers and businesses in the IT, Software and Computer Services sector are well below the numbers indicated by UK data. Given the salience of technology in the creative economy, this flags up an area of challenge for the city's creative economy, although we note that digital skills clearly exist in other areas (such as design)."

We wanted to know the sector better and examine factors involved in – or limiting - its growth and so businesses in the sector were surveyed, with a focus on the challenges and opportunities for the sector, the role of community and how it fits into the Cardiff’s wider creative economy. The survey was sent to a number of businesses in Cardiff and received a response rate of over a third, with 15 completions.

The survey suggested that the sector is dynamic in nature with a number of those surveyed starting their business in the past two years. This suggests that there has been activity which bodes well for growth and reflects the vibrant start-up community in Cardiff. These businesses tend to have fewer than 10 employees. The start-up community is supported by a number of organisations such as Cardiff Start and Unified.diff. Indeed, there have been 103 start-up births in the Cardiff and Swansea tech sector in the last year according to the Tech Nation report which reinforces the dynamic nature of the sector. This is compared to 128 in Belfast, 363 in Edinburgh and 7,682 in London. 

Those who responded provided an interesting perspective on the sense of community within the sector with 67% of companies surveyed stating that they perceived the sector to be a 'creative industry'. This supports the categorisation of the sector as sitting within the creative industries as outlined by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Two thirds of respondents also attend sector events such as Tech Dragons and Digital Tuesday. This suggests that networking and collaboration is prevalent within the sector and that events form an important part of the wider identity of the sector. However 46% of respondents did not believe themselves to be part of the wider creative community in Cardiff by answering that they either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the question “do you feel part of Cardiff’s creative community?”.

Respondents provided interesting perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing the sector. A lack of a sufficiently skilled workforce in the Cardiff region was outlined in responses. It is suggested that this could be as a result of top talent being attracted to London. Overall 60% of respondents stated that there were not enough skills in the area to serve the sector. This suggests that better communication between educators and businesses could result in a more appropriately skilled graduate pool. Given the number of educational institutions in the Cardiff region offering skills and training for the sector there appears to be a disconnect between the skills developed and their practical application in Cardiff.  

When asked to identify the challenges to working in the sector respondents offered a wide array of issues in addition to a lack of skilled labour including; little support and understanding of the start-up community, the perception that Cardiff ‘doesn’t do software', a conservativeness and risk aversion in the sector, that the sector is too densely populated, finding clients with realistic budgets and high speed internet access. A lot of these challenges are to do with perceptions of the industry, which greater involvement with the wider creative industries could help to alleviate. The need to evangelise about the strengths of the industry in Cardiff are said to be crucial in the 2017 Tech Nation report of the sector, which also acknowledges similar issues with the sector identified in this survey.

Finally, we asked business owners what kind of support would benefit their businesses. Particularly prevalent among the varied responses was the need for greater seed-funding for companies, with 30% of respondents indicating this was a challenge. However others disputed this, stating that they do not need any external funding and stressing the need to ‘make it happen’ themselves as there is already ‘a lot’ of support for businesses. The idea that greater government assistance in some form would be beneficial was a common perspective, as was the need for better training. Some are looking for third party or community aid, such as 'more involvement/invitation to events' and mentoring. Many believe that the IT, Software and Computer Services sector already have the answers so potential knowledge sharing could prove an aid to those needing funding and training advice. This is evident in the high volume of conversation on pages such as Cardiff Start.

From this survey it appears that the sector could benefit from an increased conception of themselves as a community and that more can be done to situate the industry within Cardiff’s wider creative community to the benefit of all parties. Bringing together businesses from both within and outside of the sector could reap benefits in collectively thinking about the future of the creative industries in Cardiff and the role that IT, Software and Computer Services can play. While there is an existing sense of community within the sector, the challenges presented here highlight that greater networking and engagement could provide an exciting way to join up activity.

I would like to thank those who answered the survey and took time out of their schedules to provide insightful material for analysis. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please use the comment facilities below. If you would like to complete the survey, you can still do so here. Joe Rossiter, Cardiff University Student Education Innovation Projects student.