How the act of charity is closing the STEM and digital skills gap

powering digital skills

To survive in today's workplace, it's crucial employees know how to use different technologies to boost efficiencies and produce better results for their employers. There's also no denying that as the world becomes more interconnected, digital skills will become as fundamentally important as English, maths and science.

According to a recent report by the British Chambers of Commerce, three in four businesses in the UK believe there's a digital skills shortage among their employees, while 84% of enterprises said IT skills are more important now than two years ago. These types of shortages can have a detrimental impact on everyday business operations and the situation is similar in more technical industries and roles.

Unfortunately, it's generally accepted that there's a skills shortage in the world when it comes to knowledge of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Research from the UK Commission for Employment & Skills suggests that companies are struggling to fill 43% of STEM roles.

When it comes to solving such shortages, education plays an important role. However, many people still feel governments aren't doing enough to encourage the younger generation to develop digital skills and take up careers in STEM. Luckily, a new wave of charities and social enterprises are working to solve this problem.

Starting on a local level

Teaching young people the technical skills they need to survive in the modern workplace, particularly in STEM roles, is crucial. Although this is challenging, FTSE-listed British IT service provider Computacenter is proving it's certainly possible. The Hatfield-based firm, which advises organisations on IT strategy, implementation, performance, and infrastructure management joined a local initiative led by the Hertfordshire Learning Enterprise Partnership to help local schools build their employability curriculum.

Craig Cobb, future talent consultant at Computacenter, explains how his company has been working to encourage girls at two local schools to consider careers in STEM. "For the initiative, Computacenter chose 2 local girls' schools; Bishop's Hatfield Girls' School and St Albans Girls' School, to provide work experience, mock assessment days for employability, and apprenticeship Q&A sessions with female apprentices," he says.

"We sent our own female employees to the schools to actively dispel common myths that IT and technology are industries just for males, encouraging female pupils to engage in an open discussion around challenges in the workplace, how to make themselves more employable and why STEM subjects are so important for A-levels and beyond.

"This is part of a wider company initiative with the objective of having a female board member in the coming years, and a steady pipeline of females involved in traditionally male dominated vertical industries, such as cyber security. I'm an active STEM ambassador, which I hope to expand across the company, working on behalf of STEMNET, a local Hertfordshire organisation attempting to do similar activities in a variety of local schools."

Focusing on the next generation

Crest, a not-for-profit accreditation body representing the technical information security industry, has been working to close the significant digital skills gap in the cyber security industry. The organisation provides internationally recognised accreditation for organisations and individuals providing penetration testing, cyber incident response and threat intelligence services.

All Crest member companies are expected to undergo regular and stringent assessment to ensure they can demonstrate the knowledge, skills and competencies needed in this fast-moving field. Over the years, it's worked with the government and other organisations to create STEM career guides for students at school and university. Crest has also generated interactive career models that show how you can enter and progress within the industry.

Ian Glover, president of Crest, tells IT Pro that cyber security is one of the sectors that's in desperate need of new talent. "With the acute shortage of skills available in the fight against cyber crime, the number of students studying STEM subjects is of great importance to the cyber security industry. According to recent UCAS figures, applications to courses in computer science this year have shown virtually no increase," he says.

"This may be in part due to poor employment figures for computer science graduates in recent years. This is a contraposition to cyber security graduates, who with a little experience are in great demand. The important message to get across to school pupils making their career choices is that taking STEM subjects as a route to a degree or apprenticeship in cyber security will lead to great employment opportunities. For example, Bournemouth University's Cyber Security Management course boasts almost 90% employment after 6 months."

Glover raises the importance of organisations and professionals coming together to ensure there's always fresh talent in the tech industry. "As an industry, we need to overcome stereotypical perceptions and be better at raising the level of awareness of the opportunities available in our industry. We're in a cooperative environment with other industries and therefore we need to work collaboratively to stress the importance of all STEM subjects: in particular technology. We need to provide access to clear demonstrable career pathways leading from all levels of education into a fantastic career," he adds.

Making tech fun

One of the biggest criticisms of the IT curriculum in the UK is that lessons can be dry. STEM education doesn't have to be that way, though -- something Engineering UK is working to demonstrate.

The organisation puts on fairs and celebrations around the country to encourage children to become more interested in and enthusiastic about STEM. The Big Bang Fair, one of its annual events, is the UK's largest STEM celebration for young people and is aimed at inspiring future engineers and scientists. It's a fun, interactive day where they can hear from prestigious tech professionals and companies to get a glimpse of the world of STEM.

The organisation also runs The Big Bang Competition, where around 200 student teams present engineering projects to judges and visitors as they compete for awards. Chris Boyle, acting chief executive of Engineering UK, says the initiative is about engaging educators, students and tech companies.

"We really believe that a career in STEM and in particular engineering, is one of the most important, rewarding and fun careers anyone can have - and believe it so much we spend all our working lives telling everyone, especially young people, exactly that," he tells IT Pro.

"Going into its tenth year for 2018, The Fair continues to be a great source of STEM inspiration for young people, representing an amazing opportunity for young visitors, their teachers and parents to engage in meaningful career conversations with professionals and take part in interactive workshops, as a means of bringing classroom learning to life and inspiring the next generation."

Technology is taking over the world, and there's no denying that over the next few years, there will be a growing need for people who understand STEM. While the digital skills gap is challenging, it's encouraging to see that so many charities, social enterprises and organisations trying to eradicate it.

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.