Firms look for skills to build Tech City

By Rob Virtue on September 23, 2011 1:14 PM |

tech city.jpg

They gathered in a sweltering Tower Hamlets school hall last week like participants at a craft fair.

In reality the people behind makeshift desks were some of the top thinkers in the greatest and most forward-thinking companies of the technological era.

Each of the firms, including Blackberry, Facebook and Intel, set up stalls at which students of the Central Foundation Girls' School in Bow crowded round excitedly.

The companies had all launched initiatives to inspire students at the school, one of many in the capital due to benefit over the coming years, to take up science, technology, engineering and maths.

Intel, for example, was publicising an online tool to help teachers organise their own science fairs. Facebook had teamed up with Apps for Good to create a scheme to help long-term unemployed create and maintain their own Facebook applications.

But it was not a coincidental altruism that spawned these promising announcements. It came as part of the Government's push for Tech City, a cluster of businesses it is encouraging to settle between Shoreditch and the Olympic Park and possibly beyond.

These firms are looking to establish east London as a leading global technological centre.

Public sector director at Intel Tristan Wilkinson said: "We want to see more scientists and want people to understand science and technological engineering creates more innovation and more employment opportunities.

"These skills we are honing can be used in every subject and are based around clear planning and problem solving."

Director of policy for Facebook in Europe Richard Allan said: "We are keen for people to have the skills to develop these platforms. It's part of our fundamental core message that apps built on social media have huge social values."

Although neither firm has plans to relocate to the area - Facebook operates from the West End, while Intel's main UK office is in Swindon - the success of start-ups in Tech City is vital for breeding new techology and developing a skilled workforce.

Thomson Reuters is another organisation that could benefit. Its global head of mobile technology Bob Schukai said the company was keen to give back to the area because of its presence in Canary Wharf.

The company is sponsoring three schools, including the Central Foundation for Girls, providing them with equipment and capabilities to develop mobile applications.

"We always had this foundation principle and this is our second home after New York," said Bob.

As a sideline he is a Tech City ambassador, which involves giving presentations about the project in the States.

He also keeps an objective eye on the Government's work for Tech City. One of his main aims is to ensure the best people can be brought in from overseas to help make the cluster a success.

"People want to know the tax situation and how can they get in the country," he said. "The question is what can we do to get innovative people here. The US has the same problem."

Immigration may not be en vogue at a time when hardliners are screaming for the borders to close.

But while tech firms are showing positive signs towards sparking this growth in engineering, there is currently a massive gap in talent, that needs to be filled.

Gi Fernando is the chief executive of Techlightenment, one of the original firms in Tech City when it started four years ago.

Focused on advertising, marketing and research, the company is working with Facebook and Apps For Good on their training scheme. Its involvement has much more direct consequences to its success.

Gi said: "We need good engineers. We find only one in every 100 we test to be good enough. It's a real challenge finding these people."

The firm is preparing for a massive growth and will soon be looking to hire a significant number of engineers.

For them, and many other companies in Tech City, preparing the next generation for these roles cannot happen soon enough.

The man behind the scheme

tech city2.jpg

It's a story Tech City's chief executive Eric Van Der Kleij has told many times before, but standing in front of a group of teenage schoolgirls it was one he had to say again.

"I was 15 and going off the rails," he said. "But then my brother bought me a Sinclair ZX1.

"It changed my direction and inspired me to go into the tech industry. That was my moment and now I want others to have that moment."

Eric went on raise $40million of capital to set up his IT business of credit card fraud prevention before "exiting" six years ago.

He now heads up the Tech City initiative, which he says is the "fastest growing tech cluster in Europe" but ultimately he wants to make London the leading tech area in the world.

Tech City was officially launched in November last year when Prime Minister David Cameron announced the Government was going to do all it can to make the small group of tech firms that had clustered near the City grow exponentially, thereby also helping regenerate the east of London.

"Much has already happened," said Eric. "There were 200 tech businesses in the Shoreditch area when the Government made that announcement. Now there's over 500 and most have been established without Government funding."

Born in Holland, Eric calls himself one of the foreign contingent, but he is adamant of the importance of training UK people for these jobs.

"Training is the most important aspect of this," he said. "We have to focus hard at the earliest stage in getting young people these STEM skills.

"The best place to get a skilled work force is the indigenous population,"