An overview of NI's digital transformation

  • Nearly a quarter of jobs advertised across Northern Ireland last year were within the digital tech sector, according to research for the Government’s Digital Economy Council by Tech Nation.

    The statistics state that 16,853 new digital economy vacancies were advertised in 2018.

    Over 60,000 (one in five) people are employed by tech firms in Belfast, with tech roles paying 17.65% more on average compared with the rest of the UK.

    Two thirds of those staff employed in 2017, worked in digital companies but in non-tech roles.

    Tech Nation CEO Gerard Grech said: “With over 2.1 million people working in digital technology in 2018, the tech economy is bigger than sectors like hospitality and construction.

    “However, increasingly, those lines are getting blurred, with technology jobs crossing over into the mainstream sectors like financial services and health helping them evolve and stay competitive and productive.”

    For example, more than 36,000 people are now employed in the financial services sector in Northern Ireland, as claimed by digital and finance news site, AltFi.

    In theory, this suggests that all of these people are therefore working in fintech, with Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen stating that "fintech is vital to the future of financial services, and we want every corner of the UK to be able to harness its power.”

    Tech Nation’s research also showed that tech vacancies in Belfast grew by 120% between 2015 and 2018, giving Northern Ireland the highest growth ranking in digital job advertisements within the UK.

    According to Belfast City Council figures, 97 digital tech businesses launched in Belfast in 2016, with a suggestion that the number of digital businesses started in the region more than doubled over five years.

    Northern Ireland also has the highest proportion of start-ups, reaching £1m in revenues within three years, as stated by the Enterprise Research Council in 2017.

    Belfast City Council states that the Belfast area makes up 30% of all jobs in Northern Ireland, and an analysis of Tech Nation’s research suggests that 10% of the city’s population work in tech-related jobs, indicating the vast and constantly growing opportunities within the country’s digital industries.

    According to tech intelligence website, Information Age, one in 11 people in Northern Ireland is employed in the knowledge economy. This refers to the use of knowledge to create goods and services, such as IT and software development jobs.

    The site further claims that Belfast has one of the highest concentrations of cyber security jobs in Europe, with Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) producing 1200 jobs in cybersecurity between 2009 and 2017 (as shown in statistics from QUB’s Centre for Secure Information Technologies).  

    Tech Nation supports this, with its research claiming that Belfast is the best place to work in the UK for software and full stack developers.

    The report by Tech Nation, released in June 2019, makes the case that Belfast is now one of the top cities in the UK for tech workers.


    Salaries averaging at around £40,000 per annum partnered with Northern Ireland’s lower cost of living put the country in direct competition with the likes of London.

    The consistent rise and success of NI’s tech industry however, does come with struggles; the digital industry is growing rapidly but there aren't enough people to fill the roles.

    Around 86% of companies surveyed by CBI (Confederation of British Industry) in 2019 currently have digital skills shortages and 93% expect their need for digital skills to grow over the coming years, with 72% of businesses admitting that they don't think their digital skills needs will be met over the next 1-2 years.

    As a result, salary distributions across the IT industry in Belfast are close to London levels.

    To ensure the maintenance of Northern Ireland’s digital transformation, more companies are calling for a higher focus to be put on STEM education, to get young people interested in tech at an earlier age.

    Some initiatives have already been put in place, such as the mTech.Academy and PwC's Hive Hackers coding programme for primary school children.

    The BelTech 2019 event in Belfast celebrated the successes of the NI tech scene, but its overriding message was that the skills gap is widening and more needs to be done to close it.

    Tom Gray, from Belfast-based software company Kainos said: "There is a need to debunk the myth that the tech industry is only for people who code.

    "We have a responsibility to help people understand the breadth of skills that are essential in our industry. Problem solvers, designers, communicators, collaborators, and project managers are all fundamental roles within the emerging technology sector."

    However, the future of Northern Ireland's tech scene does look bright for the most part.

    In 2016, Belfast City Council noted that 40,000 people worked in the professional, scientific and technical sectors, which is expected to rise by over 16,000 people by 2026. Likewise, the IT industry alone is said to increase by 13,407 in this time.

    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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