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Talent Retention in Scotland’s Tech Scene: An Interview with Shaun Millican

Ross Kelly

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Talent Retention Scotland Tech Scene

As Scotland prepares to enter a new era outside the European Union, questions linger over the nation’s ability to attract and retain talent. 

DIGIT spoke to Shaun Millican, Head of Technology at Johnston Carmichael, about how Scotland’s digital technology sector can retain and nurture talent. 

Several top figures within the Scottish Government, including Derek Mackay and Kate Forbes, have emphasised the importance of Scotland’s digital technology sector in recent months.

While these statements and gestures are not uncommon, there is a clear underlying theme; its critical role in future economic prosperity.

The recent success and growth of the tech scene, both across Scotland and in Edinburgh specifically, has helped cultivate a vibrant, diverse ecosystem, which continues to draw global attention.

Throughout Edinburgh’s startup scene, in particular, there are a number of high-profile success stories while other companies and entrepreneurs discreetly innovate and help to grow the scene.

If one were to judge the tech scene in Scotland based on its companies – startups, scale-ups, unicorns and all – on the face of it, the image is one of positivity, success and ongoing development.

Shaun Millican, Head of Technology at Johnston Carmichael, believes it is important to acknowledge the role people have played – and continue to play – in this development and success.

Talented individuals, entrepreneurs and pioneers have been integral to the success we have witnessed so far and will be the key to future success. But this talent pool, Millican suggests, could run dry if the ecosystem is not properly attended to.

Cultivating a Healthy Ecosystem

Having worked in the digital technology sector for more than 15 years, Millican has watched the startup scene in Edinburgh flourish.

This success, he believes, is due to a combination of the strength of Scotland’s Universities, a leading angel investment community and macro initiatives to make the UK and Scotland a place to start a business such as investor tax reliefs, R&D tax relief and Patent Box relief.  These have all contributed to the growing level of expertise and diversity in skills within the country.

There is evidence of this working, Millican believes. Particularly in regard to collaboration between institutions and organisations – many of which look to academia as a primary talent pool – as well as the number of spin-outs from universities.

“To be fair, there are a lot of partnerships where universities will work and collaborate with businesses, and in a lot of cases bigger businesses will run events at universities, for example,” he says.

While these are proactive steps toward developing closer ties and a tighter ecosystem, there could always be more done.

He explains: “We need to encourage engagement with academia and make no mistake, there are a lot of skills that can be used and applied to help businesses moving forward.”

As well as academia, certain companies within the ecosystem have contributed to the ongoing success, several of which continue to cultivate a highly-skilled, talented core group.

“The ecosystem over the past 15 years has developed so far,” he says. “And it continues to develop at a significant pace. Success breeds success, and the success of companies such as Skyscanner and FanDuel has helped propel the scene even further.”

While these companies certainly have helped raise the profile of Scotland’s tech scene, Millican suggests it is the talent they have helped develop and embolden that has played an enormous role.

“This isn’t just because of the awareness raised by these firms, but because of the people that then spin out bringing expertise and experience with them. Because of this, we’re developing talent but also people from outside are looking in and thinking ‘maybe Edinburgh is the place to be.'”

With a growing demand for digital skills in Scotland, Millican recommends a number of methods through which to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Looking further afield is naturally something that individual companies and the sector at large should consider, but keeping talent produced in Scotland in the sector is equally as important.

Retaining Talent

“There is an increasing demand right across the business spectrum for digitally skilled people. It’s a huge demand and it’s a here and now issue,” he says.

Millican added: “This requires a joined-up approach, with a mix of developing the next generation of talent, attracting talent into Scotland, and then asking ‘how do we retain talent once it’s here?'”

Scotland’s academic institutions attract people from around the globe, and people who travel to Scotland to study courses which enable them to contribute to the ecosystem, Millican adds, need to be encouraged to stay.

“We need to think about people who are coming here for university studies, for example, and think about how we can keep them here and retain them within the ecosystem once they’ve graduated. We should be asking them what they’re doing and where they’re going afterwards.”

Conversely, this isn’t an issue isolated to non-UK students. While the contribution of foreign nationals to the tech sector in Scotland is unquantifiable, ensuring that Scots and other students from across the UK stay here is equally important.

Incentives

This lingering issue of talent retention will require incentives, he explains. While on the surface this would appear to be financially-oriented, there are other incentives that Scotland can offer that are worth more than money.

In terms of culture, quality of life and cost of living, Scotland is undoubtedly an attractive place to live and work. To ensure this campaign is effective, closer ties will need to be forged between different communities and sectors.

“It will take a mixture of central and local government, and business communities, being able to work together to make this happen,” he says. “There are a number of initiatives underway, obviously, such as the City Deal, which aims to develop our cities and making them more attractive to come and work in.”

The growing level of competition both within the UK and around the world is making this an increasingly difficult task. However, Millican believes Scotland is well-positioned to retain talent and compete on a global scale.

He says: “There is a lot of competition between cities and regions to attract talent. Obviously, that’s an issue the world over, though, and just the way things are.

“I think Edinburgh holds its own, Scotland as well in that regard. It is a wonderful place to come and live and people shouldn’t underestimate that or the benefits of living and working here.”

A Worthy Cause

Within the startup scene particularly, Millican believes there is an additional incentive that Scotland can capitalise on.

Many startups in Scotland have, at their core, a vision to improve or benefit the lives of others. SocialBite, BrewGooder, a multitude of MedTech startups and even education-focused startups all look to improve and empower.

By engaging with people, bringing them onboard with this vision and purpose, he suggests that people may be more inclined to stay behind and be part of this cause.

“One thing that’s changed is a lot of startups have more than just a commercial aim,” Millican says. “They have a social purpose, an idea and a goal, and that helps to attract talent because I think people want to work for companies or join organisations that are making a difference.

“They want to be part of something that has a bigger purpose,” he adds. “A lot of companies get this and are definitely benefitting from it. It’s definitely something that will help to retain talent.”

Being part of a journey and a cohesive culture is also something that Millican believes can help retain talent. Working at a multinational corporation in which a graduate is another cog in an overarching machine may not excite many graduates.

While he insists this does not detract from the role people play in large businesses, he suggests that people could be part of something and involved in a project.

He explains: “I think, for me, it’s similar to any business keeping people and that’s about creating a culture in which people can grow and have experiences that will benefit them economically, but also give them a wealth of experience they can take with them further down the line in their career.”

Millican adds: “These individuals are part of a relatively small team and can be closely involved in driving forward innovation that they wouldn’t necessarily have as part of a bigger business.”

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

Brexit is an unavoidable subject when discussing business and going forward there could be significant challenges in both attracting and retaining talent in Scotland. The Scottish Government, Millican notes, has thus far made a concerted effort toward projecting a positive, inclusive image since 2016 and has made its opposition to the UK’s withdrawal clear.

“To be fair, I think the Scottish Government has highlighted the importance of immigration in Scotland whereas it might not be the same elsewhere in the UK and they’re continuing to make that known,” he says.

Businesses are resilient, however, and he insists that by combining Scotland’s strong tech ecosystem, world-class universities and welcoming culture the country is capable of capitalising on home-grown and international talent.

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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