Businesses across the UK are increasingly sounding the alarm about the growing digital skills gap in the UK and, according to some, the failure of the government to address this issue properly.
Earlier this summer, a group of London businesses called on Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to tackle London’s growing skills shortage, warning that the capital’s recovery from the pandemic was on the line.
It is estimated that the existing digital skills gap sees the UK lose out on £63bn in GDP every year. As a result of Covid-19, traditional industries are digitalising, new sectors emerging, and our ways of working are rapidly changing, so that figure is only going to dramatically rise without decisive action.
Time for City A.M. to sit down with the CEO of Fire Tech, one of the UK’s largest tech educational platforms, offering specialist courses in tech and coding.
Its founder, serial entrepreneur Jill Hodges, who set up the company in 2013, has around 25 years of experience in building and growing new businesses, primarily in financial services marketing, equity valuation and business consultancy.
There is a digital skills gap in the UK; what key factors are playing into the worsening issue?
Within the technology and digital industry, there are numerous reasons why people are unable to apply for well-paid job positions. We have previously campaigned on key factors we believe are playing into the wider issues and increasing the digital skills gap. One of these factors is the increase in relative poverty among working households. This can often be coupled with issues accessing high-speed internet and access to the necessary technology itself.
In order to prevent the digital skills gap from worsening in the UK, there needs to be a change in the approach to teaching tech-based subjects
Secondly, we believe education and the availability of high quality technology education at earlier ages for children is something that plays a key part in developing a solid foundation that can grow these skills as a child progresses through the school system and outside of it. Currently most skill-up initiatives are aimed at 16 to 18-years plus, this is simply too late to start teaching these vital skills. The focus or introduction to tech based subjects needs to be weaved into the curriculum much earlier.
In your view, how has the pandemic affected the digital skills gap in the UK?
There is no question that the pandemic has affected the digital skills gap in the UK however, we must be clear in the fact that the pandemic hasn’t caused the digital skills gap, it has simply accelerated the growth of an already pressing issue and in some ways helped bring it to the fore. With large tech-based companies struggling to fill job positions due to a lack of skilled workers, it has highlighted that everyone needs digital skills to do their jobs or schoolwork, and that those who lack the skills or the access will miss out on opportunities at an ever increasing rate.
Playing into this is the clear gap in wealth across UK households.
The statistics have shown that those most impacted by the pandemic were those struggling prior. This acts to exacerbate the inequalities we saw previously i.e poorer students were more likely to have fallen behind during the pandemic.
Is the digital skills gap impacting more than just large corporate tech companies?
Interestingly, we recently carried out an in depth analysis looking at tech hubs across the UK and available digital vacancies. There is a myth that technology-based jobs are focused in London; however there are a number of Hubs across the UK from Manchester and Brighton to Leeds, where there are quality roles within technology. Access to developing those skills across the UK and that evolve from that have a wide-reaching impact on developing regional economies where talent is focused and drawn to London ahead of others.
Of course, digital skills are necessary for large corporations, but the shortage in access to these skills is arguably felt even more severely within SMEs and startups.
The (growing) shortage of talent in this sector obviously increases competition in a playing field that isn’t level. This is bad for competition but also innovation and the ambition of growing businesses here in the UK.
How are UK schools working to educate students in the field of tech and digital skills?
Computing is on the national curriculum, but it is still very challenging for schools to find great staff, and the course in itself is in many cases outdated. Many schools still use worksheets or paper based learning materials in non-engaging ways to teach a subject that is computer based – which is madness.
We see the numbers of students taking Computing GCSE’s actually declining, despite the fact that the importance is growing!
Computing is a natural fit for project-based learning, but the curriculum tends to be about content, as that’s easier for assessments and for non-expert teachers. What students need is the opportunity to use their programming skills on projects that they really care about – creating intrinsic motivation to learn and use the material.
So from your personal experience and understanding of the tech industry, how can the UK get out of the digital skills gap crisis?
I believe that starting early is key to building the necessary future skills for our children. These are the skills identified by the WEF as being essential to the future of work. This is not just skills like coding and programming but also critical thinking, problem solving and systems design. We recently pulled together an open letter to our government to highlight the importance of starting early in technology and digital skills education. This isn’t simply something that can be thrown at our already over-stretched education system; it’s something where the skills are not always there among the teachers and the curriculum cannot be updated quickly enough.
And how is that outside the UK?
Internationally, we’ve seen other governments take a more proactive approach. In Oman, where we worked with 14-17 year olds for the last four years, the National Youth Program for Skills Development focused on developing a generation of youth with the skills necessary to participate in the digital economy, and to become lifelong learners able to continually pursue new skills in line with those sectors growing as part of the fourth industrial revolution.
Finally, on a more personal note, being the founder of a range of companies, having been active in the financial services space for decades, what sparked the idea for you to jump in and start Fire Tech?
Like many parents, I saw that my own kids loved using and playing with tech, but they weren’t doing anything constructive with it. Given that it’s the building blocks of the economy, and an amazing creative medium, I wanted to be sure that kids like mine were learning how tech worked, benefitting from learning computational thinking, and being prepared for the digital economy they are graduating into.
Given that both schools and parents find it difficult to support kids to really master these skills, I decided to start Fire Tech to give kids from all backgrounds, and all over the world, the chance to build cool, relevant projects with technology. That goes beyond coding and includes creative digital design, digital music production, getting to grips with YouTube content production, understanding how AI works (and some of the ethical considerations around it). I wanted young people to be able to explore and be empowered to build anything they wanted using tech skills.
Anything else you’d like to share or say to our readers?
Aside from asking for additional support for students in terms of funding from the government, equally we could be turning to large corporate tech companies to help educate the future workforce – after all, they will be the ones looking to fill job positions in the future and they know the level of skills needed by candidates to be qualified to apply for these positions.
The formal education sector struggles to prepare young people for the world of work they will enter.
We see more companies addressing the skills gap at the higher education level, and more corporates looking to engage with younger students in order that they get exposure and inspiration before they’ve chosen their GCSE subjects. Not only tech companies but, also financial institutions, telecoms companies, creative industries, and many others are painfully aware of the skills shortage, and they can see that it’s worthwhile to engage younger students in programs that will create a pipeline that will eventually be right-skilled for critical, well-paid jobs in growing industries.