This week, a House of Lords Digital Skills Committee report – entitled Make or break: The UK's digital future – flagged a much-discussed issue facing UK businesses: the IT skills gap. Although already often-debated and regularly covered in the press, this report brings a new sense of urgency to the topic with Baroness Morgan, the chair of the committee, highlighting the fact that “we are at a make or break point for the future of the UK, its economy and its workforce”. The report throws a spotlight on the fact that more than a third (35 percent) of jobs are at risk of being lost through automation over the next two decades and 9.5 million UK citizens lack adequate digital skills, partly down to the fact that they have been "poorly served at school". There is also the stark warning that:
“Digital businesses can locate anywhere in the world, and if we fail to provide the right conditions for them to flourish in the UK, we will become a branch economy, much less prosperous and influential than we could be."
So, what can be done? Well, as the report flags, education needs to be dramatically overhauled and digital literacy has to be treated as a third core subject on a par with numeracy and literacy. There are certainly some steps being made in the right direction. Just a few weeks ago, education secretary Nicky Morgan launched a number of technology education projects at Bett 2015, including a £3.6 million government boost and support from tech goliaths such as Google and O2. At a higher education level, last year also saw the biggest rise in applications for technology degrees, with an increase of 13 percent over the previous year, and computer science following hot on their heels (12 percent). The fact is we need to get our next generation of technology talent up and running as soon as possible. Digital literacy now needs to be made front and centre of the curriculum, sitting at the heart of primary and secondary school education.
ICT lessons at school may no longer be about getting to grips with creating PowerPoint slides with Clipart or using Word and Excel as they once were, but there’s still a long way to go. Yes, there’s now a computing curriculum, including coding lessons, but how many teachers have the knowledge required to equip pupils with job-relevant, essential ICT skills for a workplace that is rapidly changing with the fast-paced shift of technology?
Although technology has always been vital for businesses, the rise of cloud, social, mobile and big data means organisations are increasingly seeing technology not just as enabler, but a key business differentiator. By analysing the wealth of data at their fingertips, companies can gain a competitive advantage, increase productivity and innovation, and ultimately drive revenue growth. However, to analyse data, develop new apps, create new products and more, you need tech talent – coders, programmers, app developers. You name it, businesses – not just nationwide, but globally – need it.
A government-funded scheme being driven by the British Computer Society is already addressing the knowledge gap for teachers, with a network of 400 “master” computer science teachers being recruited to train others. While the government works on reinvigorating the way in which technology is taught to children in the classroom, businesses also have to do their bit to close the gap. Graduate schemes and apprenticeships, which enable young people to apply the skills they’ve learnt in the classroom to the working world, are vital. The Tech City Apprenticeship, Coding Cupboard and the Apprentice Hub in the North East are just some of the programmes that are now springing up to help plug the gap. It’s also fantastic to see Barclays launching its Code Playground and initiatives such as Coding Club gaining momentum. The government and private sector need to work together to avoid the IT skills gap becoming a chasm.