Having sat at the forefront of UK enterprise since his late-teens, Rajeeb Dey is aware of what a fledgling startup needs in order to scale and succeed. He also knows what could derail a promising venture.
It’s fewer than eight months until Britain leaves the European Union, and the co-founder of David Cameron’s StartUp Britain campaign is worried that growing companies could struggle to access vital talent and skills in the coming years.
Aside from an imminent skills shortage, Dey has further concerns that the government’s approach to tech education is failing to prepare a workforce fit for the future.
Business Advice sat down with the serial entrepreneur to find out about his latest ventures, the threats Britain’s tech community could face from 29 March 2019 and how startup founders can prepare for the challenges ahead.
Tell us about Learnerbly and Enternships and your role there?
I am the founder and CEO of Learnerbly – a workplace learning platform powered by experts. We curate the best learning experiences whether it be courses, coaches, conferences, books, podcasts, articles and more to equip employees with the skills and insights needed to navigate the future of work. Employees are usually given their own budgets to take ownership of their own development with Learnerbly supporting and guiding the process.
Prior to this I started Enternships – a platform to connect startups and SMEs to interns and graduates through which we’ve helped over 7,000 businesses find great talent.
You recently wrote for Real Business on why extra visas will not be enough to keep UK tech thriving – do you think tech will be affected by Brexit more seriously than other sectors?
It has always been particular hard to hire for tech talent in the UK. Whilst this isn’t a UK only problem – and there is a global shortage of people with the right skills – we did have access to a wider pool of talent from the EU.
My concern is that, unless immigration rules are reformed to enable a truly open and global talent marketplace, the hiring challenges within UK tech startups maybe compounded.
On the flip side, one thing tech companies have going for them (against jobs in other industries such as hospitality or construction) is the ability to have a remote workforce. I see a growing role for tapping into talent abroad that may not necessarily relocate to the UK but worth remotely for UK companies.
Why do you think the visa extension is not enough?
The numbers of visa in question through the extension compared to the scale of the problem in terms of job vacancies means that whilst it’s one step in the right direction there needs to be much bolder thinking in this arena if we’re to want to see the sector continue to thrive.
This should be seen in the context of broader policy changes and incentives for employers to invest in upskilling and reskilling their existing workforce to meet the demands for the future of work.
What action would you like to see the government take to help give startup the access to talent they need?
I think the Apprenticeship Levy should be reviewed in terms of how this funding can be redeployed for wider training and skills initiatives. It is estimated that over £1bn is still sitting in the Apprenticeship Levy accounts unused by corporations.
The current approach to Apprenticeships is still restrictive and unappealing to employers and if anything, my hunch is that it may be having a counter-productive impact, whereby employers who may have previously spent on internal learning and development may cut back as a result of the Levy which they will see as a tax (especially if they do not have intentions to utilise the funds for their own Apprenticeship programmes.)
These funds could be used to support smaller businesses who wont have the same resources to invest in training as larger corporations as well as more broadly reviewing the government’s approach to the Apprenticeship Levy so that more businesses – startups and corporates can actually utilise it to invest in upskilling and reskilling their workforce.
You mentioned in your article you don’t think it’s enough to fill jobs with talent from elsewhere – how can we make tech education more of a priority in the UK?
Some countries such as France and Singapore offering individuals learning allowances to invest in their development. For example, France’s employment minister recently announced new reforms that will give each employee up to €800 a year to invest in their own professional development. We could introduce something similar with perhaps a focus on acquiring tech/digital skills.
What sort of things do you think kids should be learning in schools to equip them for careers in tech?
Beyond understanding the basics of coding at schools young people should be equipped with analytical and data skills as well as the mindset to be constantly curious.
Given how quickly things are evolving and the average shelf life of skills being less than five years, anything they learn in school now will likely be out of date by the time they leave and enter the world of work. Therefore, it’s more important to instil a sense of curiosity and learning how to learn! These are more “human skills” which are hard to teach per se but require a broader change to the education system.
What can businesses do to upskill the employees they have currently?
We have seen a rise in companies offering the notion of individual professional development allowances. Our clients offer anything from £250 to £2,000 per person to invest in their development. This works particularly well for small companies without dedicated in house learning and development teams and also allows employees to take control of their own learning.
At Learnerbly, we support these employees to discover the best learning based on what they want to learn and how they best learn. For larger employers it acts as a great “perk” and shows that they as employers are investing in their people.
What is the biggest challenge right now for UK tech startups?
Access to the best talent is still the key challenge I suspect you’ll hear from most startups – given the shortage the salaries commanded are inflated which becomes hard for early stage companies to afford and stifles growth.
What is the biggest advantage for UK tech startups?
We are fortunate to have a vibrant investment landscape in the UK of angels and early stage VCs. This has been supported by the governments tax breaks around EIS and SEIS relief which has really helped companies raise the initial capital they need to get going.
Obviously the bigger the threshold for SEIS relief the better but it’s definitely been a huge boost for tech startups since its been introduced.
What would be your biggest piece of advice for tech startups?
Start potential client conversations early. If you’re in the B2B space start meeting corporate potential clients as early as possible. Not only do you get great input from someone who may buy your solution but they also get to know you.
Corporates are becoming increasingly open to collaborating/buying from startups as they recognise it can often be a faster and cheaper source of innovation versus trying to develop everything in house. There are numerous accelerators/incubators and people tasked with developing links to startups so ensure you identify these people and reach out.
Ultimately its about networking, and whether you’re in B2B or B2C, developing a strong network will help accelerate your growth.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Enjoy the journey – remember it will be full of ups and downs and can be scary and exciting all at once. You’ll learn a huge amount and hopefully have the change to make a big impact at the same time whether it be for social good, financial return or ideally both!
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