Digital Skills – a lost generation, and thoughts on reversing the trend of declining technology skills in young people

20 August 2020
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By Dermot Murray, VP of Ideation at Inoapps

Last week saw the release of A-Level results in England and Wales, following on from the publication of the equivalent results in Scotland the week before.  Leaving aside any of the political considerations relating to exam grading, one thing will remain the same - many thousands of young people will set foot on a path that will define their lives and careers for the future, and the course choices that they have made whilst at school will often drive those paths.

Whilst the trend in England and Wales shows a 11.7% increase in the total number of pupils taking Computing at A-level, recent figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority showed a 21% drop in Computing Science Higher entries. As someone that has built their career in technology in Scotland, I find it frustrating to see an overall trend away from digital qualifications at school in Scotland.

At a time when digital transformation has never been so critical to our lives and livelihoods, when "traditional" jobs and industries are suffering and the tech sector is showing huge growth and opportunity, I find it baffling that the next generation of talent is simply not engaging with tech. The figures have a direct effect on the job market too, with around 13,000 digital tech job opportunities annually – a 16% increase on the previous forecasts – but only around 6,600 people entering the market each year with relevant tech skills.*

There are many people far more qualified than me to comment on this issue and how the trend can be reversed (follow the work of @Toni Scullion at the marvelous DressCode, or the activities of ScotlandIS, for which I am proud to be a board member), but as someone that has recruited many young people into careers in tech, as a father of 3 daughters currently in the education system, and as someone with a passion for helping the next generation succeed, here are my thoughts on what can or should be done.

  • Start early: The decline in digital skills is not simply caused by individuals choosing not to take those courses when they’re 13 and 14. The problem starts earlier. Children need to be engaged in digital tech from primary age, making digital skills part of the learner’s journey from the beginning, making it an intrinsic part of what they do. Lay the foundation for that future at the earliest stage.
  • The image: "It's dull and it's just for the nerds". That's the impression my daughters have of anything computer-related at school. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them. In the 2 years of ‘Computing’ lessons they’ve had at school, the emphasis was on basic office skills, making avatars in Paint, and some very dull "coding" in a development framework from the dark ages. If that is the initial impression of digital skills that our children are receiving, then no wonder they don’t want to take it any further.

  • Lack of engagement: The lack of engagement of young girls into digital skills remains an issue. Although the statistics show an increase in females studying computing at school, the percentage of girls studying computer science in a Higher Education setting across the UK is staggeringly low - according to UCAS stats from HESA, in the academic years 2014/15 to 2018/19 less than 1 in 5 computer science students were female. I know a lot of work is being done to address the issue, but more can and should be done. I work alongside many outstanding female IT professionals who love their job, but I fear we still have a long way to go in challenging the ‘boys only’ stereotype early enough to make a difference.

  • Career options: I attended a careers fair just before lockdown, and talked to young people about a career in digital and tech. They all believed a career in IT just meant coding and had no idea about the myriad of other options now and in the future – back to ‘the image problem’ again. Yes, coding is not for everyone – but a career in digital can be so much more than that. Young people spend so much time on social media and gaming sites and are incredibly tech savvy, but there is clearly a disconnect with this being something they see as a desirable career. Parents are a key influencer when it comes to subject selection and have a huge role to play here. Parent’s need to be empowered to understand the different study paths and career options that their child could take. Taking a less “traditional” route may be the right choice.

  • Digital transformation: Businesses are recognizing that to be successful, they need to bring digital into every part of their business processes. The same needs to take place in the education system. Digital skills need to be incorporated into the whole curriculum, not just treated as a standalone subject. It should be the foundation for every subject, and every pupil should have the opportunity for digital skills to become part of their everyday life. Why for instance, is it not possible for art students to use digital media, math students to incorporate data science fundamentals, or English students to incorporate social media skills? The drop in Computing Science entrants in some ways is not actually the main issue - of course not everyone will be interested in a career in IT. But digital skills will be required by everyone, no matter what their career choice. A transformation needs to take place in schooling to ensure that the future workforce can succeed.

  • The curriculum: But what of those who do take Computer Science as a subject? If you read many of the course curriculums for the various Computer Sciences courses, in my humble opinion, they are dull, uninspiring, and not fit for purpose. They are written to address the skills of 5-10 years ago, but do not reflect the skills that will be needed for the work this generation will be delivering. Could this be part of the reason students don’t select Computer Science – they realize what they’re learning is old news? Where are the Cyber Security skills, AI, automation and robotics? Where are the E-Commerce skills that will be required to allow every business to engage with their customers in the workplace of the future? Yes, the curriculum will probably always be playing catch up with the real world, but things cannot change so slowly. We must teach the skills our economy will need in the near future to remain competitive and our workforce to be fulfilled.

  • Industry engagement: A key challenge in recruiting the next generation of digital talent is the lack of digital skills in school leavers. This contradiction must be addressed - the traditional university route will of course provide one learning path, but schemes such as Codeclan, with which I’m involved, have shown that highly valuable digital skills can be developed in as little as 12 weeks. Other “nontraditional” learning routes are equally as valid. Organizations need to do their bit not only to welcome those who have taken a more vocational study route, but also to ensure the next generation of talent will actually be armed with the skills required in the marketplace. And schools also need to be more open to industry engagement, and move away from education as a silo.

This week also sees the publication of the "Logan Report", a review of the Digital and Tech sectors by Mark Logan, former COO at Skyscanner. I would thoroughly recommend anyone with an interest in our digital future to take the time to read it.  Among many recommendations he calls for a transformation in how digital skills are taught in school, and advocates that they should be treated with the same importance as core skills such as Math. 

I’ll finish with a final thought: The impact of Covid has overnight brought about a transformation in the way our children are taught. Digital tools and collaboration platforms allow remote learning, and have changed the way students will learn, I hope, forever. This transformation was happening, but at a snail’s pace. Circumstances accelerated that pace beyond recognition in a matter days. This shows, it can be done! I understand the challenges of budget and time, and appreciate that there are no easy answers, but the fall in Computing Science students is worrying and indicative of a more widespread trend of an ever-growing gap in the skills market. I hope this sudden yet successful paradigm shift will serve as a wake-up call to children, parents, educators and industry alike, that embracing IT from a young age is not just vital, its fulfilling, varied and enhancing!

* Digital Scotland Business Excellence Partnership: Scotland’s Digital Technologies: Summary Report 2019

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