Alternative paths into the digital economy

digital education

Regular columnist Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, argues that the UK’s education pipeline must be reformed if we’re ever to address the country’s growing digital talent gap.

‘Throw away the outdated attitude’ were the words from Prime Minister Theresa May when addressing the best options for school-leavers, and university being perceived as the only way to achieve high levels of success.

As sectors across the economy increasingly adapt to the digital age, and the demand for high skilled professionals sharply grows, we need to learn to look beyond traditional education paths.

This summer, the number of students collecting A-Level results in Computer Science rose by a quarter since last year. While boys still represent 80% of entrants, it is encouraging to see that computing is fast becoming a valued part of the national curriculum.

Over a third of all A-level entries are taken in STEM subjects, demonstrating a clear eagerness to learn technical skills at an early age. However, many companies argue that universities are not developing these skills further, nor teaching young people how to apply them when entering the work force.

If university courses are going to prove worthwhile for STEM students, they must place greater emphasis on transferable skills – developing students that enter the workplace with their knowledge enriched rather than stultified. University courses need adapting, and fast.

Some institutions have taken steps in the right direction and have shifted with the times – UWE-Bristol, Falmouth and Northumbria Universities now offer entrepreneurship courses, while the recently established Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology is working hard to plug the engineering skills gap. Much more of the same is needed.

Meanwhile, employers must understand that university courses are not the only path into the digital economy.

In an uncertain economic time, companies are crying out for new employees capable of strengthening the digital aspect of their businesses – and the answer lies with the private sector itself.

Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.’ Tech companies consistently cite a shortage of talent as the single biggest challenge they face, yet the vast majority of businesses continues to look at the same talent pool for recruitment. Something has to change.

The next generation of workers has grown up surrounded by technology – while millennials are ‘tech savvy’, generation Z is considered ‘tech native.’ This natural aptitude must be taken advantage of and put into practice effectively.

It is imperative that the private sector takes the lead in assisting candidates by providing university alternatives. Enlightened employers can no longer look down on qualifications such as apprenticeships or privately sponsored programmes, as these are the initiatives that provide the most sought after specialised training.

Digital design and web development are two areas in particularly high demand, and employers boosting these areas would give themselves a distinct advantage. A proficiency in coding’s core languages will also soon be considered a prerequisite – a STEM scheme developed by employers would allow them to build up a portfolio of projects using code.

Demand is also high in the field of data science, a skill often overlooked in areas of study.  These highly talented workers are in a minority, and tech companies need to bring this talent on board early, rather than risk losing their skill set to a less applicable profession.

The private sector has historically not valued apprenticeships, and it is important to understand that a recent report showed STEM apprenticeships could add a total £6bn in social value. It is clear tech firms can no longer avoid channelling money into such a lucrative enterprise if they wish to keep their heads above water.

With students now graduating from British universities with an average debt of £50,000, the idea of entering a paid training programme may prove an attractive alternative to those not wishing to spend the rest of their lives repaying student loans.

Now that technology plays such a crucial role in many jobs, there must also be greater focus given to on-the-job training. For example, JP Morgan already offers classroom style training to graduates, as well as personal mentors dedicated to bringing new employees up to a high standard within the first year.

According to Tech Nation, London currently only has 300,000 digital employees. This number can be increased to one million if the right measures are applied.

The government can offer support and ultimately transformation of the education system will come. But ingenuity and the ability to craft fresh approaches at a fast pace that address pressing economic issues is the job of the private sector – and companies must embrace their vital role in developing the talent of tomorrow.