The digital skills gap starts at school

A recent study has shown that courses encouraging young people’s digital skills are failing, meaning pupils leave school underequipped for entering the digital economy.

ICT, a course many of us were mandated to take, has been phased out after being deemed too simple. It has been replaced, although not like-for-like, with Computer Science, which is widely accepted as more difficult.

Most schools offered some form of ICT at primary and secondary-level. Computer Science, however, is a GCSE and A Level qualification and is only offered by half of schools in England. What’s really startling is the stats around the students who choose to take it on. Only 12% of all pupils at schools that offer Computer Science take the subject, and only 20% of those are girls. It’s clear that we’ve got some way to go to increase female representation in technology; girls could be encouraged into technology or science at a young age before it’s too late. Check out our International Women’s Day 2018 series to read about how some of the most successful women in tech at TSG got where they are today.

An alarming statistic is that children from poorer backgrounds are likely to miss out on Computer Science. The typical Computer Science candidate, according to the Roehampton Annual Computing Education report, is: “academically strong, mathematically able, likely to be taking triple science, from a relatively affluent family, and overwhelmingly likely to be male (even if the smaller number of girls taking the subject do better in the exam)”. Similarly, comprehensive schools are less likely than grammar schools to offer the subject; comprehensive schools represent 90% of the school age population, whilst only 2.6% of children at grammar schools are from poorer backgrounds.

Many argue that the specificity of Computer Science is the reason it is failing as a subject and thus failing young people. With a heavy focus on programming and coding, Computer Science is most suited to those who are looking to gain a job in those areas. It doesn’t necessarily equip pupils with the basic but vital skills to compete and live comfortably in the digital-first world.

On the other hand, with the ever-increasing proliferation of technology in both the business and consumer world, it’s likely that proficient coders and programmers will be in high demand. We know that by the time current schoolchildren enter the world of work, 50% of the jobs that will be available to them don’t currently exist. Indeed, the reason we’re experiencing a digital skills gap right now is because school, college and university-leavers are ill-equipped for the jobs already available to them.

Additionally, a barrier preventing many educational institutions from offering Computer Science is the lack of skilled teachers. The digital skills gap quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s expected that the number of young people studying a computing qualification could half by 2020, which has been labelled a disaster for the economy. The Chartered Institute for IT states that in order to meet the demands of the future economy, half a million more children need to achieve a computing qualification per year.

A number of studies have shown that, whilst emerging technologies will render some job roles redundant – most notably those in the service areas and those with manual, repetitive processes – they will also create a wealth of new jobs. Artificial intelligence alone is expected to create 2.3 million new jobs by 2020, in contrast to the 1.8 million it is expected to wipe out (Gartner). The risk, then, is not a lack of jobs, but a lack of skills required to do these new technology-driven roles. The fact that AI is expected to wipe out mostly low-level jobs is concerning in the face of disadvantaged youngsters missing out on computing qualifications.

Workers in all job roles are expected to be more proficient in the general use of technology than ever before. Your accounts team needs to be able to use an ERP solution effectively. Your field-based engineers might use a PowerApp to manage their jobs now as opposed to paper-based logging processes. An increasing number of shop floor-based retail workers walk around with a tablet to show customers demonstrations, view details on stock or product features and even take payments. It’s difficult to find a job role not affected by technology in some way. This is set to increase, with one in five workers relying on AI to do their job by 2022.

An area that’s often overlooked is data literacy; the ability to read and understand data or statistics, and use them to inform business decisions. Big data has been labelled the fourth industrial revolution, yet poor data literacy was listed as the number two barrier to digital transformation in another Gartner survey. Businesses that effectively utilise data to make critical business decisions and those who have employees that are skilled in data literacy will be the winners. Read our Business Intelligence Specialist Stu Wannop’s blog to find out more about data literacy and the fourth industrial revolution.

It’s clear that digital skills should be embedded from a young age. With the disappearance of school-level ICT qualifications, young people must still be provided with education in technology. Computer Science has a place, but arguably only for those who will progress into developer, programmer and coding roles. It’s vital to equip all people with these skills, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds that might not be afforded the same opportunities as their Computer Science-studying peers. These skills should then be nurtured and improved upon throughout a person’s life. Technology is advancing at such a phenomenal pace that skills can become outdated. One option is embedding these skills into core subjects that young people already take, like English, Maths and Science.

At TSG we foster an environment of lifelong learning. Whilst we have a knack for employing and retaining highly-skilled developers, consultants and more, we also ensure we keep our experts’ qualifications up-to-date. Our experts collectively hold over 1000 professional certifications, with close to 100 completed per quarter. What’s more, we’ve got an online Learning Management System (LMS) for more informal – but still recorded and certified – training. This ranges from basic transferable skills to knowledge about our products; it’s all user-generated, meaning our colleagues produce these courses to help others out.

What do you think could be done to tackle the digital skills gap?