Is there a growing UK skills gap?

As the video game industry continues to go from strength to strength in the UK, recruiters are working overtime to try and fill the need. In an industry that’s changing rapidly with the growth of esports, and instability caused by the country’s potential implosion post Brexit, we reached out to recruiters around the country to see what skills they’re struggling to find.

Overall, everyone we’ve spoken to has the same primary concern: there just aren’t enough candidates with experience in senior and lead roles.

Seven year itch 

“In terms of skill gaps for us, we’re seeing an issue as we’re starting to move into areas where we need seniors and leads,” says Alex Wright-Manning, senior recruitment manager at Bromley-based developer Splash Damage.

“There seems to be a five to seven year gap of qualification and experience. We can go out, we can hire juniors, we can hire mid-level folk. But, in terms of the seniors and leads, there’s a lot fewer around and that’s probably our biggest challenge at the moment.”

His thoughts are echoed across the industry with game recruitment outfit Amiqus’ business manager Liz Prince adding that finding seniors with established leadership experience is a particular challenge.

Wright-Manning suggests this could be because of a change to the way universities educate.

“I think this gap came about because of the shift from traditional computer science into games-focused educational programmes,” he says. “Some of them are great, but some of them are cash grabs, because every student has a monetary value attached to them now.”

Students, Wright-Manning says, are getting better at discerning the right course for their future career, so it’s a problem that does seem to be improving, but it will take time for this change to move through the industry.

In terms of hard skills, many are struggling to find experienced coders. Simon Hope, director at games recruiter Aardvark Swift, says that the most challenging area for its business is programmers, especially those with skills in AI coding and graphics engines: “It is a serious issue,” Hope says. “Experienced programmers are highly sought after by lots of industries, not just video games, and it can get competitive.”

Nathan Adcock, the PR and marketing manager for recruiter OPM Response, adds that there’s also been a particular shortage of backend engineers with Amazon Web Services experience, largely due to the increased need for networking engineers and server operations in games.

Tamsin O’Luanaigh, nDreams’ talent director, says that despite receiving a lot of prospective CVs and specific applications for jobs posted online, sourcing technical disciplines like VFX and graphics programming are still a struggle: “This has been an issue for some time,” she admits. “But through a combined approach to recruitment, we often pull a talented rabbit out of a hat.”

C++, UE4, physics, audio, UI and UX are all mentioned too. The highly technical skills seem to be in near-constant demand and when these in-demand skills are required at a senior level, it can become a real headache.

Peter Lovell, Jagex’s director of talent acquisition, says that it’s no longer a cold war for skills, but a very hot war with companies with the same needs and a similar size getting into bidding wars for must-have talent.

“This isn’t a sustainable model, but it’s where we’re at right now,” Lovell admits.

The rise of interest in esports has created a whole new sector for recruiters in the industry to move into, one that prioritises soft skills entirely.

“This is a very customer-facing industry with a lot of work done front-and-centre for an audience,” says Prince.

“So, having those strong PR and communication skills is vital for people to be successful in a number of key esports roles. These are skills more akin to the TV and radio industries which are now seeing increasing demand within the video games and esports industry.”

The b word

Hiring for these skills could soon become tougher too. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now because of the looming shadow of Brexit.

“It is fair to say that Brexit is already having an impact,” says Hope. “We are seeing a significant, and growing, percentage of EU candidates turning down roles based in the UK. As a result of Brexit, the UK is no longer seen as progressive or welcoming. There has been a real stigma attached to it for some candidates. With the uncertainty around the status of staff from outside the UK, we are even seeing staff looking at leaving UK studios to return to Europe or roles in other international gaming hubs. Groups like Ukie have already pointed out to government that navigating immigration for high-value staff can be complicated, time consuming and expensive. With Brexit they have no guarantee it will be any better in the next couple of years.”

He continues: “How bad could it be for UK based studios? Let’s put this in context. We know there is already a technical skills shortage in the world and that we are in serious competition with other tech industries for skills.”

Hope paints a grim picture, mentioning that almost every studio in the UK has a good chunk of overseas staff, often brought in to help shrink skill gaps or fill roles that can’t be found domestically. This won’t change, as studios will always need talent that can’t be found locally.

“With big names like Riot, Activision, Bethesda, Google and Facebook already based in Ireland it isn’t a huge leap in imagination to see studios relocating to Ireland to retain easy access to a Eurozone talent pool,” Hope says. “With advances in cloud computing, and remote working making it easier for companies to move for the best deals, it could be very easy for the UK to be left behind.”

Prince adds: “There is a definite feeling of ‘wait and see’ when it comes to making a move over. Especially if they have family to consider.”

Lovell says it could make acquiring the “real polymathic kind of talent, who can make or break a project with their brain” more difficult, as many of these people are brought in from abroad. And while often this is outside of even Europe, adding extra complications like visas and immigration is a potential problem.

Wright-Manning presents an unusual silver lining to Brexit that has made recruitment for midsized studios even more difficult: “With a weak pound, it’s now great to develop here,” he says. “So all the big multinationals are pouring money into all of their main studios, like Ubisoft and EA. They’re really ramping up their operations here, which is stretching the talent pool as far as it can go.”

Adcock is less gloomy about the UK’s prospects, saying that OPM has only spoken to “a small number” of recruitment targets who wouldn’t consider the UK because of Brexit. However, he says that when the UK leaves the EU he expects more people to be put off by the idea of coming here.

“Most European citizens value being able to easily work in another country without many blockades or time-limited visas,” Adcock mentions. “At some point we’re all going to have to become experts in the new visa process, whatever that process may be.”

Regardless of how Brexit goes, so far it’s had the effect of making a small talent pool feel even smaller to the folk in the recruitment trenches, and over the next 12 months, we could see certain outfits have to push themselves even harder to try and get the staff they need. 

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