Education and tech: How we can tackle the skills shortage at its roots


Professor Rose Luckin on how we can tackle the digital skills shortage.

It was recently reported that UK firms are paying up to £100,000 to lure skilled workers to support the economy. Beneath this statistic, the UK skills shortage presents itself as a significant challenge in the technology sector, as well as the wider economy. To resolve this fundamental challenge in the long term, the skills shortage will have to be tackled at its roots – and education is the first place to start.

The UK skills shortage isn’t going away

Last month, the British Chamber of Commerce pointed to the skills shortage being at a record high. And earlier this year, it pointed specifically to a shortage of digital skills – with direct impact on productivity and overall business performance.

Looking abroad to fill shortages in the labour market – through a STEM visa scheme, for example – certainly makes sense as a short-term solution to meet tech business’ needs. But a longer-term solution will ultimately need to include an education system that equips young people with the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in the UK and wider global economy.

Broadly speaking, the skills shortage is often seen in terms of a lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills. Indeed, we need to make sure young people are equipped with these basic competencies. But addressing these is only half of the problem. The labour market is transforming, and future employees will also need a whole range of expertise, particularly digital skills.

There is also a shortage of computing and data science skills for digital and AI industries, and the cyber security industry in particular is experiencing a dearth of skills. The lack of diversity in tech and AI also finds its roots in a failure to equip girls and young women with the aspiration to enter the industry.

Tech is going back to school

If we are to get on top of the skills shortage, we will have to ensure we have an education system that can equip young people with the right abilities, as well as the right knowledge, needed by future recruiters. Recent research by education community Bett found a mixed picture of innovation and digital skills in schools.

Some schools are indeed making paths to provide students with some of these essential skills. Around 46% of teachers and school leaders surveyed said that they had adopted the “STEAM” learning technique – which sees a much closer integration of skills central to the arts (like creativity, discussion and critical thinking) into the learning of science, technology, engineering and maths. A further quarter of teachers said they would be likely to adopt this approach in the future.

Robotics also makes tracks into mainstream education. Bett found that 26% of teachers have already adopted robotics in some form, while one in five are expecting to incorporate this into learning going forwards. Computational thinking is a highly-prized skill by tech recruiters, and is now becoming mainstream in schooling: 45% of teachers have already built this into learning, and a further 21% are likely to do so in the near future.

But many schools are unable to create a true culture of digital capability, due to their own constraints around the adoption of technology. Nearly half of the UK teachers surveyed said that their institution was reluctant to invest more in educational technology. Meanwhile, a further four in ten said that IT infrastructure at their institution inhibits the adoption of educational technology.

A possible solution here would be to better connect the education technology industry to the education system, and to the evidence about how best technology can support teaching and learning. Technology works best for everyone when it is truly learner-focused and evidence-informed. And that means students, teachers and researchers informing the design of technology used in schools, colleges and universities.

Excellence in tech begins with thinking skills

Whilst hardware itself can be expensive, there is increasing adoption of innovative teaching methods, giving pupils the valuable “soft” and critical thinking skills that can really support the digital economy. There are some great teaching methods going on in schools, that are sure to build the creative and entrepreneurial capacity needed by recruiters.

    • Problem-based learning: this method focuses on using real-world problems as the basis for learning, where groups of learners work together to find solutions to open-ended problems. This reshapes topics as real problems: for example, using maths and science for designing an effective public transport system. This approach promotes critical thinking, inquiry and group work.
    • The “flipped classroom”: this way of teaching effectively turns the classroom upside down. Instead of a teacher explaining concepts at the front of a classroom, pupils watch multimedia videos or screen captures independently at home. The classroom becomes a place where students discuss material and completed exercises, based on that they have previously been exposed to. This promotes students’ control of their understanding and promotes a sense of collaboration in the classroom.
    • Students as creators: This moves away from students simply acquiring knowledge, but instead creating something new with a knowledge base. This could be through projects where students make videos or design concepts for future technologies, by applying their learning.

There is no single solution to the UK skills shortage, but a long-term approach that focuses on the role of technology, data and digital skills in the education system will be key to ensuring sustainability in the future labour market.