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Learning to Close The UK’s Digital Skills Gap

With the current issue of the UK’s digital skills gap, expectations are mounting that the UK’s educational system, rooted in traditional ideology, must quickly rise to the challenge of nurturing a pool of digital talent fit for the future workplace. The question is – how?

Generation Z is tech-savvy, while the next generation, Generation Alpha (born 2010-2025), are more than likely to have a digital footprint before they even take their first step. Despite this, there is an exponential growth in the use of more sophisticated technology that has not equated to increased technical knowledge. Of more concern, is that it may even have had the reverse effect on available digital skills, with each generation becoming increasingly reliant on the use of technology, in particular Artificial Intelligence and Automation.

The Government and schools are aware there is a problem, and digital skills are considered a crucial complement to English and Maths. However, somehow within the current curriculum, they get lost in a drive to excel in reading, writing and maths. To help elevate digital skills up the learning ladder, blended learning (the use of learning technology to update teaching methods) has been recommended, however, this approach remains uncoordinated and inefficient.

Blind leading the blind

An important contributory factor to the success of blended learning is the need for an increasingly technically proficient teaching workforce, as part of a continuous digital transformation programme. Aligned to this is how sufficient the educational sector’s knowledge in the best practices procurement of quality digital resources is to meet those needs

  1. Educational systems require this support if the UK is to create an ecosystem for digital skills to take root and blossom.
  2. The revolution in the uptake of video conferencing software during the pandemic in 2021/22 to facilitate online learning revealed how quickly existing digital gaps can be plugged in when required. While some schools were quick to adapt, others worked their IT departments and budgets to get up to speed with digital resources that were once nice to have but soon became essential to service provision and business continuity.
  3. Who will pay for the cost of wholesale digital transformation of our educational sector?

Without facing all of these challenges, coding will continue to be treated like piano lessons within many schools – more of a hobby rather than a key skill, resigned to lunch and after-school clubs. An attitude that continues into higher education where it is treated as a technical subject and not an academic subject.

During our recent webinar ‘Mind The UK’s Digital Skills Gap’ panellist Emma Robertson – a senior leader of technology projects and portfolios and also a school Governor, commented on how the education system can contribute to bridging this digital skills gap:

“For me, it’s about taking companies into schools and demonstrating the wealth of roles in technology, you don’t have to be a coding expert, you can be a tester, you can be an architect, you can be a project manager or a business analyst. Really exposing the wealth of opportunity in technology at such an early age, I think is going to be key in getting them hooked from an early age. They all use TikTok, they all use Instagram, they all use technology. There are techie people behind all of this and by explaining that at schools we can really help that attraction into tech.”

For the love of tech

ROQ believe that we cannot hang around to wait for an educational system to play catch up and that students are key to plugging the skills gap. According to The Learning and Work Institute, the number of young people taking IT subjects at the GCSE level has dropped 40% since 2015. Some believe that the curriculum changes in 2018 away from the old ICT courses to Computer Science and poor timetabling options have had a negative impact on uptake. The Roehampton Report revealed that within a small proportion of eligible Key Stage 4 students (ages 14–16) taking Computer Science GSCE, girls were poorly represented, as were students from poorer backgrounds and some BAME groups, especially Black students.

The report also highlighted that more needs to be done by teachers and parents to make pupils realise almost any career they choose will require digital skills. Employers won’t always be capable of investing in teaching them these skills on the job. According to research from the Learning & Work Institute, 70% of students held this expectation. There is a need to strengthen the narrative that basic digital skills are a prerequisite for many jobs and that if they studied computer science, they would be in high demand.

It doesn’t help that there is no universal definition of digital skills, which can range from IT specialists to generic users, covering a vast array of skill levels. Another hurdle to overcome is the perception that you must be “brilliant” to follow a computing course. As with any stereotype, it is hard to shake off the image of the computer nerd, which can set an artificial barrier to a career path in IT. Naturally, humans are social beings so why would majority of students want to pursue a seemingly solo career? Equally, employers might perceive employees with excellent digital skills as possessing them to the detriment of other necessary teamwork skills. Many IT professionals embark on their career due to their love of technology but in the words of one IT professional they “tend to think, that when they hop into the cookie jar, they are the most special cookie in that jar, and they are the brightest cookie in that jar. And it sometimes can be challenging when you have someone telling you what to do.”

There is a ray of hope, however. In 2020 universities experienced a year-on-year 7.6% increase in the uptake of Computer Science within the Higher Education sector (although the majority remain male).

ROQ is also aware that there lies a massive opportunity to retrain those who seek a necessary career change into the IT workforce. For this reason, it will soon be focussing its attention on recruiting ex-forces personnel into the ranks of IT professionals the UK requires.

Making courses relevant

Attracting more pupils into studying computer science is not the only issue; there are also question marks over the quality of education they are receiving, with just 27% of UK leaders believing the education system offers adequate digital training for pupils.

Due to the rapid pace of technology change, the UK’s National Curriculum needs to be flexible and agile in relation to teaching digital skill sets. There is a constant threat that today’s essential digital skills will be obsolete not long after our next generation of software engineers have their qualifications under their belt. This pace of change will only get faster so that, by 2030, people will learn “in the moment” using new technologies, with the ability to gain new knowledge being more valuable than the knowledge itself.

Collaborate to educate

Higher up the chain, it is encouraging to learn that nine universities have been identified as providing a good level of education in technology – Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College London, Southampton, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow, Birmingham. However, the overarching message from both the primary, secondary and HE sectors seems to be that the educational system cannot meet the challenge of creating a wealth of tech talent for the future workplace alone. This message has not been lost on ROQ who, for the past five years, has been helping to foster that talent by creating a host of complementary digital skills to those provided by the UK’s existing educational institutions.

ROQ also recognised, at the same time, that partnering with educational institutions was one solution to plugging the digital skills gap. We have worked closely with seven UK universities and established annual roadshows, promoting the ROQ Academy and careers in software testing, throughout most of the universities based in the north of England.  Our success in this respect is undeniable with ROQ’s Academy 2021/22 intake placing 12 students from the within companies, following an intensive 14 week “boot camp”, with a 100% retention rate to date. This impressive outcome is largely due to a combination of providing clear personal development plans that track progress and plot staged developments in order for students to take on more challenging testing roles and responsibilities.

Also in 2017, Manchester University began working with the CBI and the ManPower Group to promote its Apprenticeship Levy. Such initiatives are gathering more momentum as proven by Microsoft’s recent launch of an ambitious 5-year programme, Get on 2021, to help 1.5 million people build careers in technology and help 300,000 connect to tech job opportunities. KPMG, Unilever and the Department of Work and Pensions are already supporting the campaign.

You can now view the recording of our webinar ‘Mind The UK’s Digital Skills Gap’ on our website, in which we discuss the themes in this article, and more in further detail.

Mike De Souza – New Business Development Manager, ROQ

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