Broadly speaking, the world is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Over recent years we’ve seen an exponential explosion in technology. Since the emergence of the internet there has been an acceleration in the development and adoption of new technologies including artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D printing, blockchain (a cryptographic record system), autonomous vehicles, sensors, and many new developments in the energy sector, healthcare and education.

As exciting as it is, this evolution has resulted in the well-publicised employment skills gap. In August 2017 Forbes reported: “With more than 90 per cent of U.K. jobs requiring some level of IT competency and digital orientation, the so-called ‘digital skills gap’ is said to cost the U.K. economy more than £63 billion in lost additional GDP a year.” The Guardian touched on the underlying problem in its report: “Universities must join forces with employers…to produce graduates who meet the changing needs of industry.”

According to a recent report by O2, the UK will need to fill 750,000 new digital jobs by 2020, and to train almost 2.3 million people to meet the demand for digital skills.
Unlike other G20 countries, the number of computer science graduates has in fact been falling considerably in the UK since 2002. In addition, many of the in-demand skills identified by industry are evolving at a rapid pace, so fast in fact, that traditional 3 and 4 year education formats are simply too long and means students are graduating with skills that are not aligned to the available employment paths once they graduate.  

Quite simply, the traditional education model has become disconnected from industry; and that’s really because traditional education is still based on an industrial model, but we are living in a knowledge economy in the information age. We need people who are creative and can think on their feet, who know the software and tools we’re using in the industry today, and can contribute and add from value day one.

I think we can all look back at our education and agree that universities play a vital role in providing the highest quality of academic study, especially in research, the sciences and healthcare. However, with the exponential speed at which technology is evolving, it is near-impossible for colleges and universities to be able to adapt their syllabi quickly enough, and so by the end of a two, three or even four year course, much of the content learned is already out-of-date and irrelevant for today’s tech-driven employers.

Many college courses are unfortunately also still focused on too much academic theory, without the real-world workplace experience that industry is looking for. Over 70 percent of people entering the tech sector have a degree, and although I think we all agree a degree is still useful for helping young people to learn and develop, it’s not enough to get them into a job.

Young graduates entering the workforce need to be able to display real-world learning and experience, and it is also unreasonable and unrealistic to expect industry to train them to learn those skills on the job; it is a burden that a young fast-growing company simply can’t be expected to carry.

It is clear that we have to build a bridge between traditional education, which provides students with foundational knowledge and theory, and introduce other means to build the real-world skills that are used in the tech industry today. When this is achieved, the graduate becomes a meaningful contributor and actually highly employable. With the tech sector in the UK growing faster than in any other G20 country, as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), there are a lot of opportunities emerging.

As founders of RED Academy, we all came out of successful tech roles, recognising that traditional education isn’t providing that bridge in preparing students for the real world. It was actually when I was running a web development company that one of my junior developers said, “I’ve learned more in my first three months of work than I did in all my six years of education”. It was the “Aha moment”: putting students into an active environment, while they are working on real products within a cross-disciplinary team is the only way to truly learn and prepare students for jobs in the tech sector.

And the proof is there; user experience (UX) salaries in the UK have almost doubled in the past year, purely because of the imbalance between demand and supply; there are around 1,800 UX design jobs open in London at any one time. Statistics from various recruitment sites show that the technology industry is growing 15 per cent faster than any other segments; and Brexit will only perpetuate these issues.

To keep ahead of the technology evolution, colleges have to work much more closely with industry, so that their courses are based on today’s skills, and on the principles of applied, active learning; real projects with real businesses.

Aligning education with industry and its employment needs is something that should be applied to all education in the 21st century. The accelerating pace of the technological evolution forces this issue, and it will not be until colleges and universities start to work directly with employers and evolve with the pace of technology, that we’ll see the skills gap decrease.

Colin Mansell is the cofounder and CEO of RED Academy, a leading digital media, design and technology school with locations in London, Toronto and Vancouver. 

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