The standard of tech education is letting businesses down

A lecture hall filled with students using laptops
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

There are fears the widening digital skills gap is being made worse by policymakers blind to the needs of businesses.

According to Udacity, most businesses (56%) struggle to hire the tech talent they need. Meanwhile, as burgeoning technologies, including the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, begin to take shape, having a highly skilled workforce in place will be critical.

Many are turning to internal training and development to fill the gap, which produces a more engaged workforce, but has its limits. Relying on the broader job market for specific technical expertise is still proving challenging, however, no matter the industry or sector the business is operating within.

Chaotic education planning might be partly to blame. Five years ago, the Royal Society’s Computing Education in Schools found 54% of schools in England didn’t offer a computer science GCSE. Today, following the abandonment of the ICT GCSE, more schools are offering computer science at GCSE and A-level, as well as ICT at A-level, according to BCS. However, in 2020, computer science was ranked the 16th most popular GCSE with 13.4% of the cohort taking the examination, and the 18th most popular A-level, with 6% sitting the exam, suggesting the tide isn't turning as fast as it should.

Prashanth Chandrasekar, CEO of Stack Overflow, tells IT Pro that tech skills are a moving target. "Over 70% of developers are learning new technology at least once a year. That means, by the time someone graduates from college or university, the latest language or technology could change at least four times. Unfortunately, traditional educational institutions cannot keep up with innovation. This is reflected in 70% of developers learning to code from online resources.”

Digital skills education is an uphill battle

According to Worldskillsuk, 92% of businesses state basic digital skills are essential, with 82% of job vacancies asking for some level of proficiency. However, many young people are still in digital poverty with little or no access to devices, which hampers their development.

Central government has identified ramping up digital skills as a priority in its UK Digital Strategy, placing emphasis on access to tech to aid further education. The Levelling Up white paper, too, aims to make access to high-quality skills available no matter your locatio. Action in previous years has had a mixed impact, though, with the number of hours of computing and ICT taught in secondary schools across the UK dropping by over a third (36%) between 2012 and 2017. At Key Stage 4, the decline was sharper, with teaching hours dropping 47%.

The Department for Education (DfE) also released a policy paper that covers post-16 technical education. Again, officials admit more needs to be done, but it's clear there persists a disconnect between early years education, further education, and the jobs market, which moves at a far faster pace than educational syllabus reform.

What kind of technical skills should be taught is a debate that’s yet to occur in any meaningful way. Indeed, speaking to IT Pro, Siobhan Wilson, senior vice president, EMEA applications customer officer and UK country leader at Oracle, makes the point that ‘technical skills’ doesn’t just mean coding.

“As business leaders, we need to also think more critically about the skills we need to run our businesses,” she says. “As the UK leader for an IT organisation, there’s sometimes a misconception we only need people with a computer science degree. While we absolutely do want people with STEM qualifications, we also need talent from different backgrounds. For example, we often hire people with an arts background to help us tackle problems from a different angle.”

Cultivating next-generation teaching

Just as elite sports have grassroots programmes to inspire the next generation of Olympians, children must be inspired to learn digital skills. By the time students reach university, their career path has been set – but often not into the subjects businesses need.

Recruiter Develop, which operates in London, Berlin and Miami, is introducing coding and other STEM-related subjects to children and young people in local areas. Speaking on the partnership, head teacher at Canon Barnett, Sarah Bellerby, tells IT Pro she’s thrilled to be part of the project. “We feel extremely grateful that the development team reached out to our school. This unique opportunity means we can carefully plan our curriculum to motivate the pupils to learn about software engineering using high quality STEM toys.”

The trick also lies in overcoming the mismatch between qualifications, many of which haven’t been updated in years, and the demands of businesses. Schemes such as this are one part of the equation, but getting the basics right are also vital.

Paul Clough, head of data science and AI at Peak Indicators, lecturer at the University of Sheffield, adds the government’s leading a drive for data literacy, comprising the ability to read, understand and communicate data. “[These] are vital to start critically thinking about the ways in which we use data,” he says, although admits it’s only one part of the story. “At the University of Sheffield, we’re striving to build more soft skills into our courses. To get students thinking beyond the technology, to the broader social or organisational context it’s used in.”

How we equip teachers is also changing, as Scott Hayden, head of digital learning and teacher at Basingstoke College of Technology, explains. "To ensure our students leave college with the right skills to help our local business, we co-design our curriculum with local employers and SMBs,” he tells IT Pro. "This is crucial to our planning. Learners need to see the stakes attached to the lessons they are a part of and how the knowledge, skills, and behaviours in these classes foreshadow the expectations of the industry.”

Businesses need to innovate at speed, but the standard and structure of education is letting them down. Enabling them to fulfil their potential requires a renewed drive to instil workers with the necessary skills. Employers, however, remain at a disadvantage with the talent pool continuing to shrink. In-house upskilling can offer a temporary fix, but only a closer connection with education providers can begin to address the problem.

David Howell

David Howell is a freelance writer, journalist, broadcaster and content creator helping enterprises communicate.

Focussing on business and technology, he has a particular interest in how enterprises are using technology to connect with their customers using AI, VR and mobile innovation.

His work over the past 30 years has appeared in the national press and a diverse range of business and technology publications. You can follow David on LinkedIn.