Written by Steve Pinches, Senior VP Product, Hyve Group Plc
In the Autumn budget, the Chancellor announced £3bn to boost digital skills with initiatives such as bootcamps in cybersecurity and AI, hoping to go some way to filling the digital skills gap we have here in the UK.
For too long, the shifting demands of the economy have been ignored by the government, or at least not given the urgency it deserves. Although schemes over the years have been introduced in an attempt to improve digital skills, we have so far failed to align the needs of the job market with the education our young people receive. Continued failure to do so will not only threaten innovation and growth in our successful tech sector, but it will be a huge disservice to the next generation who will be locked out of a vital part of the economy.
This new commitment from the government is undeniably a step in the right direction. However, the lack of digital skills in young people is not down to resources alone. There are long-standing traditions, expectations and assumptions that hold back students from committing to a career in tech that must be dismantled.
Shifting perspectives on education
One of the key ones is that studying traditional subjects at undergraduate level is still sat on this pedestal, above any kind of vocational training. In the 1990s, Tony Blair’s government set a target of 50% of secondary school students going to university, in a move considered aspirational and positive for social mobility. While that may be true in theory, the requirements of the economy have changed dramatically since then, and we must shift our focus accordingly.
If university was once the educational end goal for all those who sought successful and prosperous careers, the boom of tech and explosion of demand for digital skills have taught us otherwise.
While an undergraduate degree is still necessary for many careers, there are also thousands of recent graduates who are now saddled with huge student loans, who may now be wondering if they really gained the skills they need to excel in this new digital economy, especially when many experienced disrupted teaching and severe lack of in-person services due to Covid-19.
Alternatively, apprenticeships and digital skills programmes can enable young people to learn highly sought after technical skills in a much shorter time span, whilst earning, and without the financial pressures of large student loans and fees – they are credible alternatives we need to encourage.
Schools have a role in this, ensuring that students are encouraged to take the route best for them, other than blanket encouragement of University attendance, but businesses must also use the tools at their disposal too. Popular tech companies have an influential voice, and could do more to promote how coding skills and enthusiasm for tech and innovation is more valuable to them than degrees, and further, that undergraduates with humanities degrees have the right soft skills to enter the tech sector too.
Ultimately, this is about opening up the pipeline of talent and ensuring that young people are educated on their options and realities of further study and early careers.
Diversity and inclusion
Another key way to increase the talent pipeline is to focus on diversity. The gender gap in tech has been widely discussed and noted as a concern for the sector for some time, but there seems to be a lack of understanding on how to rectify this, which has led to minimal progress.
We must go back to the root causes for this gender imbalance. A survey from back in 2016 showed that only 17% of the UK could name a successful woman in tech, so it is little wonder many young girls do not see role models in the sector to emulate. Any government action on digital skills should take closer attention to the lack of gender diversity in the sector, directing apprenticeships and training programmes with a specific aim to enable women and girls to unlock their potential. Businesses also need to do more, working harder on their D&I strategies and do better at highlighting the women who play crucial roles within their company.
Of course, young people are only part of the story. Thousands of people across the country experienced changes in their job situation over the past 12 years whether this was voluntary career changes or job losses due to covid-19. There is clearly an opportunity for the tech sector to do more to encourage a shift into tech later in life for those who already may have strong commercial or managerial skills picked up in their prior jobs. Re-skilling is a large part of this, which the government rightly recognised, but businesses must work to make the transition as easy as possible. For example, a good working policy that allows flexible hours and home working will be crucial for working parents if they are considering a career change.
The country has undergone huge changes over the last two years. People of all ages have experienced furlough, redundancies, and unplanned career changes. Whilst the economy is still in a state of flux, the high demand across all sectors for digital skills demonstrates that digital skills are now one of the most desirable attributes to an employer you could possibly have.
It is now absolutely crucial that we give everyone equal opportunity in the sector and recognise it is our responsibility to prepare people for the job market and the future economy.