London We Have A Problem – Addressing The UK’s Digital Skills Gap
For any growing business, be it tech of otherwise, recruiting is always one of the greatest challenges. Startups in particular need individuals who can think, creatively and take on multiple jobs – from marketing to back-end development. As the tech industry continues to disrupt and influence other industries there’s a greater need for tech-savvy employees in any role, but increasingly in the UK there’s a gap between the type of talent required and the workforces available.
BIMA, the UK’s the representative body for the digital and interactive industry, is attempting to bridge this gap through its Digital Day programme that sees digital agencies, as well as tech brands go into schools and colleges to raise awareness of the opportunities available in digital. Scheduled this year for November 17,the recent launch event saw brought the likes of Microsoft and Google together with educators and those attempting to influence government policy to ask how the UK can address the challenges in the its future workforce.
Why The Gap?
For digital agencies, as well as major tech firms the shortcomings in the UK’s future workforce pose serious threats to sustaining their ability to innovate in the long term. More than anything else the advantages for them of working with schools and colleges is the potential it offers for recruiting hot talent especially from that all important millennial generation that organically think smartphone-first. However, much of this generation does not have the skills to create future products and business that the government wants to power an increasing amount of the future economy.
Many attribute this skills gap to a lack of awareness about just how many potential and well-paid jobs there are available in the digital economy, as well as school-provided career guidance’s failure to update sufficiently for the 21st century.
This is combined with a lack of dialogue between companies and those setting the standards for schools. An Ofcom study published in 2013 found dramatic failures in these areas and Clare Verga, principal at City of London Academy Islington says: ”It was found that only one in five schools delivered careers education that was of any calibre. Staff lacked expertise, they lacked the training and they didn’t have the range or breadth of knowledge regarding specifics of industries. In addition to that the weakest aspect of the report was around employer engagement and it was found that employers where just not embracing this agenda.”
Currently, the UK government’s focus is on teaching children, as well as teachers, to code. Dubbing 2015, the “Year of Code” the aim is ultimately to generate more digital entrepreneurs. However, there’s a need to look beyond just code as the skills needed to build digital companies and power innovation.
“The difference between a successful app and an unsuccessful app is not the way it’s coded,” says Hugh Milward Microsoft’s corporate affairs director. “It’s the design and feel and how it responds to the users and all these things that are absolutely essential.”
Digital is now affecting many more industries than traditional computing or software and in London the rise of fintech and adtech is highlighting the impact digital disruption is having on these digital sectors. These are big parts of the UK’s economy and the future project managers, consultant and creative will all need to be skilled digital thinkers, not just coders.
“There’s a big focus on coding and people are trying to get up to speed on that, but that polarises the issues, because it’s a much broader skill requirement that’s needed,” says Natalie Gross, BIMA executive board member and CEO of digital agency Amaze. “The government is currently in danger of just focussing in on one particular skill and discipline and failing to recognise the breadth of skills that our industry needs. It’s also only focussing on careers in digital as opposed to every single industry everywhere, which needs to have strong digital thinking and the skills to apply it.”
Of course, disrupting long-established sectors is always a slow process and changing mindsets towards education can prove glacial. Parents are always tempted to push children towards to medicine or law and the idea of creating YouTube content or building Twitter communities as an actual career still faces major hurdles.
“I’m always quite careful when advocating what I do as a job because there’s a small number that are actually able to do it,” says YouTube fashion and beauty vlogger Fleur De Force. “But what is important to highlight is the amount of jobs and opportunities around what I do. In just that industry alone that are awesome jobs that young people would love to do. But it’s also getting teachers and the education system to realise that it is a proper job.”
While De Force says she’s asked less often now by parents’ friends if she’s planning to get a ‘proper job’ the lack of awareness of the diversity of categories within digital industries is a serious barrier in encouraging children to develop digital skills. Bringing big, established brand names helps to shift this mentality, with Microsoft using apprenticeships to recruit new talent. However, taking new approaches to finding the right talent can also disturb traditional routes that the government and institutions still encourage.
“We find the biggest problem our apprenticeship ambassadors face is going into schools, because the heads don’t want them to evangelise apprenticeships because it’s a non-academic route,” says Milward. “By doing that parents start questioning why the number of kids going into university from that school is going down because they’re going to apprenticeships instead and this is a big problem.”