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As the UK navigates its way out of a global pandemic that has caused seismic shifts in the way we both work and use developing technology to facilitate that, an alarming report has highlighted the size of a digital skills gap that could hinder any rapid return to normality and economic recovery. Described by the BBC as an imminent disaster, the Learning and Work Institute’s research has a fairly bleak outlook that stresses urgent attention is required. But where does the responsibility lie? Should employers be upskilling to plug the gap; should the government be investing; or do we need to go back further and address the issue in our schools?
I recently posed this very question as a poll on LinkedIn and the overwhelming majority of responses stated that the fault doesn’t lie with just one party.
Only 7% believed employers were responsible (possibly understandable given LinkedIn was the platform and respondents may have been employers themselves); 11% said that the government was responsible; 12% blamed schools; but 70% thought all of them had their part to play and should share responsibility. While reskilling people looking for a career change is a valid option and upskilling people internally will be encouraged, most of the stats quoted in the report show a significant drop-off among students, meaning that the pipeline is only going to worsen if this isn’t addressed at a grass-roots level. As EMEA president of McAfee Adam Philpott noted, “We must ensure that we have more talent available in the first place. This is why we should encourage those interested in IT or cybersecurity as early as possible and provide a school pathway into the industry.”
"GCSE entries in computing or ICT fell from 147,000 in 2015 to 88,000 in 2020"
It was only seven years ago that the UK became the first country in the world make computer programming a compulsory part of the national school curriculum from age 5, with aspirations that it become a world leader in the space. However, since this well-intentioned move, the numbers have become progressively worse:
40% fewer students are continuing once it ceases to be mandatory at 14
GCSE entries in computing or ICT fell from 147,000 in 2015 to 88,000 in 2020
In 2019-2020, there were 247,000 enrolments and only 138,000 completions in further education
The result is that only 48% of UK employers believe school leavers have sufficient advanced digital skills
The last point shows that there is clearly a disconnect or breakdown of communication somewhere in the chain. UK employers consistently show a demand for advanced digital skills, with 60% predicting that this will only increase over the next five years. They also know that a skills shortage will directly impact their bottom line, however the report shows that they invest half of the time and money into employee training and upskilling compared to the EU. Without the defined career path that training can deliver, it’s a harder sell to schools if teachers don’t fully understand the career opportunities open to students. Despite these falling student numbers, the report claims that the vast majority of young people do acknowledge that digital skills will be essential for their future career and that 70% of them want an employer who invests in those skills. Is bridging this expectation gap where the government needs to step in? If young people know they need the skills, but only 18% are confident they have enough to satisfy the employers who are desperate for them, who can help both sides meet in the middle?
"only 25% of IT or computer science students at 16 are female..."
The numbers also show that a tech career can be an even harder sell to young women. While there have been noticeable drives to encourage female students into STEM areas, only 25% of IT or computer science students at 16 are female, falling to one in six at 18 and undergraduate level. Young women appear to be both less confident, possibly due to a lack of role models or senior women in the sector, and less interested in digital careers compared to young men. I recently spoke to a female candidate who has just graduated from coding bootcamp Northcoders. She told me that only 20% of her cohort were female and that role models and encouragement were badly needed: “It’s down to teachers telling females they CAN do something, and it’s down to employers to identify females as people who can offer more than just tech skills. The message needs to be consistent, frequent, and positive.”
Perhaps our poll was right and there is no single responsible party for a widening digital skills gap in the UK, but until all sides come together and see the bigger picture, it could be some time until those starting out in their careers are able to fill the skills shortage that employers are currently experiencing.