Andy Parker, UK Growth Manager at Udacity, explores how the tech revolution is creating a new set of trade jobs.

Self-driving car engineers; drone photographers; UX designers: these jobs were unimaginable 10 or even five years ago, their creation driven by unprecedented technological development.

Despite the rapid progress that’s been made in the private sector, we in the UK still see the three year university undergraduate degree as a prerequisite for professional success, even in the fast-moving tech sector. British universities do indeed have much to be proud of – according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency the UK has been attracting record numbers of international students in recent years.

While university education is one of Britain’s traditional exports, requirements for new skills are appearing far quicker than universities or schools can make changes or additions to a curriculum. As technology becomes an increasing part of all of our jobs, we need to look at whether our current education system is adequately preparing us for such a fast-moving world.

Computer Science is a subject, coding is a trade

Both aspiring tech workers and the companies that employ them are quick to assume that a computer science degree is a key indicator of a strong engineer. However, the reality is that an academic education isn’t a panacea. A traditional undergraduate degree is fantastic for fostering a solid theoretical grounding in a subject, and developing a passion for learning and research.

However university degrees are less effective when it comes to developing the core skills that people need for the day-to-day work in their jobs.  For example, a student studying computer science at university will gain a solid understanding of the theory behind machine learning, but many will graduate without a sufficient amount of practice or projects in languages and tools like NumPy and TensorFlow, which form the basis of many practical machine learning methodologies.

UK computer science degrees have one of the highest rates of unemployed graduates in the country, a fact which is at odds with significant demands from employers and the burgeoning digital economy. The 2016 Shadbolt Review drew attention to the need to horizon-scan for future skills requirements of computer science graduates, as well as address the lack of practical careers advice and work experience.

It’s time to take a hard look at the educational requirements for tech jobs in web development, graphic design, or UX design. In many cases, while a university degree is an important addition to someone’s resume, it’s not a critical requirement when you consider what their professional goals actually are.

Skills-focused training

Web developers or digital designers are jobs which require sophisticated skill sets: however, the theoretical education received at university is often not the best place to gain these skills. As a result, there are more and more coding bootcamps and online training programmes available for career development, particularly in code.

This isn’t about ranking university education as being better or worse than skills-led learning: they’re two different approaches to learning based on different requirements. The reality is that this requires something of a change in mindset for both technology employers and job-seekers. The former have to look beyond degree level education for technology trade jobs, while the latter need to focus on the hard skills and experience much more than the academic theory they have under their belts.

What’s more, the industry at large needs to promote the concept of lifelong learning. Technology professionals will increasingly see employers demand skills that first appeared a matter of months or years previously. It’s incumbent on all of us to keep up.

What’s next?

We’re seeing an increasing number of companies and industry bodies coming round to this way of thinking over the past few years.

The UK Government is also taking positive steps in this direction with the launch of its new Digital Skills Partnership designed to bring greater coherence to the provision of digital skills training at the national level.

Public-private educational partnerships like this have huge potential to supplement – rather than replace – the UK’s existing educational structure. Ultimately it’s a matter of choice. Different people want education for different things: some will want a thorough academic grounding in a subject, whereas others will want to jump straight into work and pick up the skills they need quickly to allow them to do that.

This second category has been historically underserved, and this can and must change if the UK is to maintain a competitive tech workforce in the years to come.

Andy Parker

UK Growth Manager at Udacity


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